Japan #03 - Kyoto-Day-2

May 14, 2023  •  4 Comments

Apr 2023

Japan Apr 2023 - #03 Kyoto day 2

This travel-blog is for a 3 week trip we took to Japan at the beginning of April 2023.  We started out staying in Hachioji (edge of Tokyo) with our son and his family but then spent 10 days on a National Geographic Expeditions tour covering an area on the southern side of Japan to the west of Tokyo more or less between Kyoto and Hiroshima.

Entire Trip map
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This installment is the second part for the Kyoto area and includes; Ryoanji Temple, Kinkakuji Temple (aka Golden Pavilion), and Sanzen-in temple (Moss Garden) as well as vending machines and pachinko parlors.

Kyoto Day 2 Map
03 # Map 6 Kyoto day 203 # Map 6 Kyoto day 2

Ryoanji Temple

Whereas on the day before we visited locations more in the urban core of Kyoto, on this day our itinerary took us to temples that are a bit out of the metropolitan area.  The first two are to the west of Kyoto and the last was farther away to the northeast.

Our first port of call was the Ryoanji Temple.  This temple complex is roughly 30 acres and consists of a large formal garden, a lake, wide paths for strolling the grounds and several buildings, but the main attraction here is the rock garden, named the Ryoan-ji Garden.  It is the best surviving example of what is called kare-sansui – or dry landscape garden - and these types of gardens are also called Zen gardens. 

This temple is quite high on the list of the must see places in Kyoto so large crowds are not uncommon.  Of course it is pretty hard to get a Zen feeling of contentment, tranquility, and peace when you are shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of other tourists all waving their phone cameras about in search of the perfect selfie with which to impress their followers and get likes.  So, our tour leader wisely decided to have us arrive at the Zen garden right when it opened at 9:00 AM so that our group would be the first group there and would have the Zen Garden all to ourselves – at least for 15-20 minutes or so till the waves of other tour groups came in.  But, as it turns out from March to November it opens at 8:00 AM.  One would think they would check such things the day before just to be sure nothing had changed.

But, for some reason, even though it was a Saturday with no rain after a rain soaked Friday, the crowds did not materialize as predicted and the Zen garden was not too crowded.  In fact, even being an hour late, there was room for our group to sit on the steps of the building facing the garden.  And, as advertised, it was quite peaceful. 

The overall temple complex was originally built in 1450 as a country estate for a wealthy aristocrat.  But, only 8 years later, in 1458, it was converted to a Zen temple. 

Ryoanji Temple grounds
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The Ryoan-ji rock garden itself is 32 ft (10 meters) x 82 ft (25 meters) or 2,670 square feet.  I’m sure you’ve seen these garden types before.  They are usually rectangular in shape with a tall solid wall on 2 or 3 sides and some sort of temple or tea house along the other sides.  These temples or tea houses usually are completely open facing the rock garden to make the garden seem to be part of the rooms in the building. 

Even though they are called “gardens” they don’t have any living plants or water.  The rectangular garden itself is highly manicured flat ground covered with small white pebbles or sand that is raked into patterns.  Interspersed in this field of white pebbles are large rocks or boulders (some several feet across), like islands in a white sea.  These rocks or boulders are carefully arranged according to some theme in the mind of the designer.  But pretty much the purpose is to bestow a feeling of peace and tranquility on the observer and foster meditation and contemplation.  In fact the Ryoanji temple is nicknamed “The Peaceful (or contented) Dragon Temple”.  And in the Zen philosophy you don’t need much to be content and you should focus on what you have, not what you don’t have.

But, they have never quite figured out when the Zen garden was actually built, or by whom, or what it represents, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t theories.  It is thought to have been built in the late 15th century, somewhat after the main temple buildings.  But who built it and what it symbolizes is even less clear.  As the temple nickname is “The Peaceful Dragon Temple” one would think that the placement of the larger rocks in the sea of white pebbles would depict a dragon, but no one seems able to see that.  So, with no accepted theories to go on, they looked at another design feature as the way add interest or intrigue for visitors and to promote the garden.

This rock garden features 15 large rocks or boulders, many grouped together on little grassy islands.  But some are almost completely buried in the white gravel and some are hidden behind other boulders.  So the literature and signs challenge visitors to actually find all 15 and if you do you gain enlightenment.  But what is more intriguing than just counting to 15 is that there is no angle of view where you can see all 15 at the same time.  No matter where you stand you can’t see, and count, all 15 boulders (I suspect though that a drone could solve that problem).  This design feature is said to encourage visitors to engage in contemplation and to seek enlightenment by looking beyond the physical realm (or at least looking behind other rocks).

Ryoan-ji rock garden with 15 boulders
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Several of the 15 boulders
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Wall separates Zen Rock Garden from the botanical garden
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The Zen rock garden itself is next to a building labeled “Hojo”.  The Hojo was originally built in 1606 as the residence of the head priest.  It consists of several rooms opening out to the Zen rock garden.  There are also hallways, a reception hall, study, and a private chamber for the head priest as well as a small private tea house. The interior of the rooms facing the rock garden are decorated with intricate wood carvings and traditional Japanese sliding doors with painted screens.

On our visit the 16 sliding screens showed a portion of the 40 panel artwork called “Dragon in Cloud” by Mr. Morihiro Hosokawa.  The artwork depicts the lifetime of a dragon from birth to old age.

Sliding screens with “Dragon in Cloud” artwork by Morihiro Hosokawa
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One of the “Dragon in Cloud” scenes
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Another “Dragon in Cloud” scene
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But this is only one part of this temple site.  Outside the Zen rock garden there are pathways through a landscaped forest, many buildings (including a teahouse), and a nice lake with a foot bridge going over to an island.

Wide pathways lead through forested areas
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Keeping the gardens perfectly manicured
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Trellis area on the grounds
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Peaceful water feature
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Still a few cherry blossoms around
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Tea house by the lake
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5 on a bridge
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Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)

Less than a mile from the Ryoanji Temple is probably the most photographed temple in the world which is the Kinkakuji Temple better known as the Golden Pavilion.  The temple was built in 1397 as a retirement villa for the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, but was later converted into a temple after he died.  

Each level of the Golden Pavilion is designed in a different architectural style. The first floor is traditional Japanese style, the second floor is in the samurai style, and the third floor is in the Chinese Zen style.  Although I was skeptical, all the documentation says that the top two floors are covered with real gold leaf.  The gold is meant to symbolize the purity of Buddha's teachings.  It also seems that to keep the gold exterior nice, bright, and shiny they reapply the gold leaf every few years.  Tourists are not allowed inside, but the story goes that the main hall, called Kinkaku or the Golden Pavilion, is also covered in gold leaf and has doors that open out to the lake. 

Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion)
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Remember I mentioned that Ryoanji temple was not as crowded as we were told it probably would be?  Well now we know where all those people went – it was here.  This place was like Grand Central Station at rush hour.  But apparently this is more the norm than the exception.  When we were here in 2010, once you paid your fee and went into the grounds you could just wander anywhere you wished on the many pathways that meandered through the site.  But now you must stick to a single, one-way pathway the leads you by all the main attractions.  All the little side paths and shortcuts and alternate routes are blocked off. 

As you go, especially where you have a view of the Golden Pavilion with its reflection in the lake, there are only 2 or 3 spots where you can photograph the pavilion itself unobstructed by trees either with or without including the lake and reflection in the shot.  These few spots were 5 to 10 people deep and wide with photographers trying to get the perfect shot – including myself.  After all, why not take the same shot as a billion previous visitors?  Well, I’ll tell you.  Because it is there.  Well, that and if I take the photo myself, there are no worries about copyrights and royalties if I want to market the image.  So there I was, adding myself to the crowd.  Unfortunately it was overcast and the light on the Golden Pavilion was not all that great.  What I really wanted was a single shaft of light to break through an opening in the clouds and light up the temple.  Wishful thinking.

One of the few spots you can get an unobstructed shot with lake and trees in foreground
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And, would you believe, while we were there (in April) a sudden freak snow storm came along?  OK, no there wasn’t but I did take a shot of a photo they had hanging on a wall near the restroom of the pavilion in the winter which is quite lovely.

Photo of photo displayed on a wall near the pavilion
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Old School treatment of a photo I took in 2010
Golden Temple, Kinkakuji, JapanGolden Temple, Kinkakuji, Japan

The Golden Pavilion we see today is at least the 2nd or perhaps the 3rd one to be built on this site.  During the Ōnin war (1467–1477) it escaped being burned down when all of the other buildings on the site were destroyed by fire.  But it was not so fortunate in the summer of 1950 when a 22 year old novice monk named Jayashi Yoken set it ablaze.  He then tried to kill himself but failed and was arrested.  He eventually got a 7 year sentence but was released early because of mental illness.  The present building was constructed in 1955, the year Jayahi was released from prison, to replace the one he burned down.

Golden Pavilion after 1950's fire.  Looks like it was only 2 stories then.  (Photo from Wikipedia)
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The one-way path circles around the side of the lake and goes behind the pavilion and then up a hill behind it.  Over half of the lake shore is inaccessible even though it looked like there were some great photo spots over there, but so it goes.  As we circled around and up the hill we went by some cute little waterfalls, and some statuary

Along the way we passed a granite “sorin” (obelisk in English) on an island in a little pond.  It is a bit over 8ft tall and was a roof finial (spire) of a pagoda from the site that was destroyed in the 15th century during the Onin war.  It is said that the sorin connects heaven and earth

Sorin or obelisk in English
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Small shrine
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Old stairs leading to upper level of garden
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Cute little waterfall
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After we had climbed the steps to the upper sections of the garden, it was noticed that the Golden Pavilion was indeed illuminated by sunlight.  So, our NGS guide and I reversed course and high-tailed it the wrong way on the one-way path, back down the hill, around the back of the pavilion and on to the far side of the lake where we had started.  This was like swimming upstream with throngs of people all going the other way and as such the going was somewhat slow.  And, wouldn’t you know it, by the time we got to one of those few photo spots with an unobstructed view and managed to get to the front of the crowd, the sunlight had vanished behind the clouds once more.  But it was worth the attempt.  But now, we needed to traverse that entire route again at an accelerated pace in order to not be late for getting back on the bus.  But, we made it.

Vending Machines

As one wanders around Japan one thing that jumps out at you is the proliferation of vending machines.  We’re all used to seeing vending machines in tourist areas, transportation centers, and other areas with high foot traffic but in Japan you can’t get away from them.  Japan has more vending machines per capita than any other country in the world.  With over 5 million vending machines (1 for every 23 people) they are everywhere.  You find them in stores, parking lots, temples and shrines, rest stops, public parks, on residential area street corners, and just plunked down by the sidewalk in front of someone’s house. 

The variety of things you can get in a vending machine in Japan is astounding.  To start with, over half the machines dispense drinks, both hot and cold, ranging from bottled water to sodas, coffee, tea, and even alcohol (an ID card is required).  But it goes on from there.  Of course there are machines for candy and snacks but also hot food, whole fruit and vegetables, eggs, popcorn, freshly made hamburgers, pizza, ice, newspapers and magazines, umbrellas, fresh flowers, condoms, pantyhose, toys and neck ties.  But probably the weirdest are machines that just surprise you with a random item that it chooses.  You put in your money with no idea of what is going to pop out. 

So why are vending machines so popular?  Well, there are several reasons.  First is that even while the rest of the modern world has embraced cashless commerce, Japan has stuck with a mostly cash  economy.  So, people always tend to have cash in their pockets even though most machines now accept credit/debit cards and Japanese phone payment systems.  A second factor is that Japan has a very low crime rate and placing machines out in public where they are not monitored or secured behind locked doors is not a problem.  Rarely are they vandalized or broken into. 

The 3rd and possibly most important reason vending machines are so popular is that Japan as a society has lots of paperwork.  Getting permits for things like opening a store or adding a room to your house is quite complicated, expensive and difficult.  The one exception is vending machines.  As long as a machine meets basic criteria such as not getting in the way of road or foot traffic and being installed in an earthquake-resistant manner you can put one anywhere you want as long as you own the land it sits on.  And you can sell whatever you want from the machine as long as you can figure out how to dispense it to the customer.  There are no zoning restrictions on where these machines can go, no permits are required, and no government paperwork is involved.  Well, except for a few things. 

You do need a permit to sell milk, beverages in open cups, cooked food (like hamburgers, pizza or ramen), items that need refrigeration (like sandwiches) and of course alcohol, tobacco and other nicotine products.  But most everything else is permit and fee free.

If you install a more traditional, mass market type, machine selling snacks or drinks, you can either buy or rent a machine or contract with a vending machine company to supply the machine.  Some companies offer a package deal where they install and maintain the machine as well as keep it stocked and you (as the land owner) pay for the electricity to operate the machine and you get a cut of the profit.

So, all in all, putting a vending machine out front is a cheap and easy way to add a bit to your family income.

(Photo by Mylène Larnaud on Unsplash)
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Sanzen-in Temple

This temple (also known as the Moss Garden) is 10 miles from the Golden Temple and is on the other side of town in a rural hilly area.  The temple, and most of the town, is up a one lane road that winds up a narrow canyon by the side of a small river.  The road is barely wide enough for a small car so getting a bus up there was out of the question.  So, the bus parked below the entrance to the valley and we walked up the 1/3 mile to the temple area.  As you go up you pass various small mom and pop stores and when tired, stop to take a few photos of the river. 

Small food market on road up the main part of town
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Small river next to road up to the town
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Eventually you come to where the temple grounds are and in front of the temple compound is a more or less level area with many, and larger, stores and shops including a 4 star hotel with a restaurant where we had lunch.  Lunch was billed as a traditional Japanese ‘box lunch’.  But this was not a cardboard box with a sandwich, cookies, juice box and an apple inside.  It was a sit down restaurant which, fortunately, had chairs instead of sitting on the floor.  The “Box” part of the lunch was a good size lacquered box with painted artwork on the outside.  Inside there were several drawers and each drawer contained several different food items.  Again, in the “traditional” style, very small portions of very many different items – most of which were not compatible with my Western Palate.

(Photo from restaurant website)
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After lunch we entered the temple.  The Sanzen-in temple is a monzeki temple which in turn is one of only a few temples whose head priests used to be members of the imperial family. So, I guess it could be said that it is a royal temple. 

As with most temples, one is required to remove ones shoes upon entering.  In most cases there is some sort of rack or cubby holes where you can put your street shoes while you are visiting the building.  However at this temple you don’t exit at the same place you enter but rather you exit out the back into the outdoor gardens and then exit the site through a garden gate.  So, they give you a plastic bag to put your shoes in which you then carry as you tour the building. 

The temple itself is not all that unique as temples in Japan go.  But, apparently it is known for its extensive collection of Buddhist art and artifacts, including ancient sutras, paintings, and calligraphy.  It was founded in the late 8th century as a villa of the Emperor Saga.  Later it was converted into a temple by the Tendai sect of Buddhism.  

But, the main attraction here is the Shuhekien Garden.  In one area of the building are some rooms that open up to gardens.  People bring a picnic lunch and sit on little red mats on the deck just outside these rooms to have a bit to eat and enjoy the view.

Having lunch by the gardens
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The gardens in Sanzen-in Temple are collectively known as "Sekka-tei" or "Garden of the Snowy Flower."  They feature a variety of traditional Japanese garden styles, including a pond garden, rock garden, moss garden, and others.  The gardens are carefully tended and designed to reflect the changing seasons, with blooming flowers and foliage in spring and summer, and brilliant autumn colors in the fall.

Small pond in the Sekka-tei garden
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Sekka-tei garden
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Many Japanese temples and shrines have a place for visitors to put “ema” (which translates to “horse picture”).  The term refers to small wooden plaques or tablets decorated with designs and which also have wishes or prayers written on them.  Originally the decorations were of horses which are considered to be a sacred animal in ancient Japan which bring good fortune and success.  Visitors to these temples and shrines can purchase a paper “ema” on which to write their own wish or prayer and then hang them on a designated board or rack. 

Ema (wishes and prayers) in the garden
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Cute little statue in the garden
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Well manicured Sekka-tei garden
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Pachinko parlors can be found throughout Japan.  It is sort of like our pinball but played on a vertical playing field rather than a sloping horizontal one. 

The game originated in Japan in the 1920’s as a children’s game called “Corinth Game” or “Korinto Gemu” but was inspired by the American game of bagatelle.  The original Japanese game used small wooden balls and a wooden board and kids would play it in candy stores and arcades. 

As time went on they moved to metal balls and ever more elaborate playing fields.  It wasn’t until the end of World War II when it became a national obsession due to the addition of gambling elements that it was rebranded as Pachinko.  Pachinko parlors sprang up all over the country with some having several hundred machines.  These were all mechanical machines with a few lights added to signal a “win” or “out of balls”, but all in all everything involved in playing the game was done with levers, weights and springs.  Even though Pachinko started out as a children’s game, it is now considered a form of legalized gambling - most gambling is not legal in Japan – and as such you must be over 20 years old to enter a Pachinko Parlor.

Pachinko parlors are large rooms with rows and rows of machines lined up side by side with rows and rows of people on stools playing the machines.  When you enter, the first thing that hits you is the noise level which is in the painful range due to the metal balls bouncing around and clanging through a maze of pins, loud “ker-chung” sounds when someone wins coupled with bells, and blaring loud music over loudspeakers.  The decibel level is similar to an airport runway and due to this many guests come with ear plugs.  The other thing that hits you when you enter is the smoke.  Pachinko parlors are one of the few indoor places in Japan where there are no restrictions on smoking and the smoke is at times so thick that you can’t see more than a couple of yards away.  Recently though, some establishments have created small separate “smoke free” rooms but these are usually very cramped and not all that smoke free.

So, here’s how it works.  When you go to pachinko parlor, you buy a bag of balls.  Then you go and find an unused machine and take a seat, many times having to wait till one comes free.  A machine consists of a feeder tray or bin where you place the metal balls you purchased (each ball is a bit smaller than a standard marble).  Then there is a spring loaded lever that you pull down and let it spring back.  This action propels one of the balls up a curving ramp to the top of the playing field.   The playing field consists of a forest of nails that the ball bounces around and through as it descends toward the bottom.  If it reaches the bottom, you lose that ball.  Depending on the machine the playing field has several “catchers” scattered around.  When a ball finds its way into one of these catchers there is a loud noise, a light flashes and you “win” a handful of balls that clatter into your feeder tray.  In addition when a ball enters certain catchers it opens flaps on the same or on other catchers that enlarge the catching area for subsequent balls making it easier for balls to be caught.  You do have some control on the trajectory of the ball by controlling how far down you depress the lever before releasing it.  This changes the speed of the ball and with practice you can get the ball to drop down into the middle of playing field where the best catchers are.

Here’s a photo of my pachinko machine
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When you’ve had enough you may or may not have any balls left over.  As gambling is illegal in Japan, they can’t give you cash for these left over (or won) balls as that would be gambling.  What they can do is let you trade these balls for trinkets like those you’d win at a county fair, or for souvenir tokens.  Now, here’s where it gets interesting.  Like I said they can’t give you cash for the balls or tokens.  But, if you go out of the facility, and go next door or around to the other side of the block, guess what?  There is a store there that buys pachinko parlor tokens for cash.  And, this store then passes the sold tokens they’ve purchased through a little door back into the pachinko parlor.  Sure am glad gambling is illegal.  But, now you know why it’s so popular.

In the 1960's and 1970's, pachinko machines underwent a technological revolution.  The old mechanical machines (like mine) were swapped out for new, flashy electronic versions that offered more features and higher payouts.  Many of the older machines were re-furbished and shipped to the US where they were sold in stores like Pier 1 Imports.  I got mine as a birthday present.


Our next installment of this series will take us out of Kyoto to Mt. Koya.


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Or, the whole Japan 2023 series here (as they are created)



Photographs from this trip to Japan can be found on my website here:


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Thanks for reading – Dan


(Images by Dan Hartford.  Info from Wikipedia, ChatGPT, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the local guides)






Chris H(non-registered)
Dan - It has been wonderful reading through your blog...I have appreciated all of the details and the history you have incorporated into your posts...I guess I wanted more of this on the actual tour, so your blog has filled a gap for the entire tour so far. Must appreciated...and very grateful. I hope you and Ellen are doing well. Best, Chris
David K(non-registered)
Great stories, great pictures. The early arrival time at the Zen garden sounds familiar!

Louise and I went to a pachinko parlor when we were on our own in Osaka. What an experience! Of course we did not know how to play and we used Siri to explain that to the clerk. She haned us a plastic laminated sheets with the instructions in English to look at. We still didn't know how to play so we each invested ¥1000 and started anyway. We got an employee to come over and try to help us. I used Siri and he used his Siri, without much being learned by us. The noise was deafening, and these were the new electronic machines with joysticks and a TV screen in the back where theoretically we could, at least on mine, use a joystick to manipulate a large fish to eat little fish, but I couldn't figure out how. We sat side by side and had no idea what we were trying to do. At one point when the employee was there I asked him what was the little spout that resembled the spout on a water tower used to refill the tanks on steam engines. Before he could fully explain it I had swiveled it out and accidently pressed the dispense button. I don't know why it rotated outward at all, but I dumped about 100 steel balls on the floor that went rolling everywhere! Louise ran out of balls at her machine so I scooped my remaining ones out and gave them to her to recycle. It was only when we finished that we learned that the number of balls left is what gives you the prize. Our big gambling loss for the trip. LOL
Really enjoyed your blog!
Michael C(non-registered)
Hey Dan,

What a truly fantastic essays you write about our trip. Keep it coming.

You should be the guide. I see you when I read your narration and view your images.
Bruce McGurk(non-registered)
Thanks, Dan - amazing garden photos. Such history and effort in keeping those ancient places in their pristine condition. I think my eyes would have glazed over long before yours did! And I can skip the pachinko fad......
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