Japan #05 - Tokushima & Iya Valley
"Awa Apr 2023
Japan Apr 2023 - #05 Tokushima & Iya Valley
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
This installment takes us from Koya (Aka Koyasan or Mt. Koya if you prefer) to the picturesque Iya Valley. In route we stopped at the Awa Odori Museum, saw a dance performance and after taking a ferry across the inland sea drove up into the Iya valley where we spent two nights.
Mt Koya to Iya Valley route Map
Layout of Japan
Japan is a 2,500 mile long archipelago made of 4 main islands, along with thousands of smaller islands.
4 main Japanese Islands
The northern most island is Hokkaido which is the 3rd largest of the four. South from Hokkaido the next island is Honshu. Honshu is the largest and is considered the “main” island of Japan. It is where most of cities you’ve heard of are such as Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto. This is the island we’ve been on so far. Tucked in below the south west end of Honshu Island is Shikoku Island which is the smallest of the 4 in terms of size. This is where we’re heading in this episode. And, the last major island which is SW of Hokkaido is Kyushu.
Some resources add Okinawa as a 5th major island which is odd as it is less than 7% the size of Shikoku Island (the 4th largest) and only about ½ percent the size of Honshu. But it has a pretty good size population given its size. With over 1 million people it is 80% larger than the next smaller island even though it is only about a third the population of Shikoku.
On to Shikoku Island
After leaving our lodging at the Henjoko-in Temple we headed west through the Japanese countryside. Even though there is a road route from Hokkaido Island to Shikoku Island over a few bridges, access to that route was far enough out of our way to make taking the ferry from Wakayama to Tokushima a more practical option. The countryside in Japan is quite lovely. We passed farming areas, little villages, as well as proper cities.
Typical Japanese house in a more rural area
Passing by a town near Nishinoyama
Farm by flowing river
We arrived in Wakayama after about a 15minute drive and boarded the ferry for the 2 hour ride over to Tokushimo. We were given a box lunch to eat on the ferry and of course there were all sorts of vending machines in case you want to top it off with an ice cream or something to drink other than water.
The ferry itself was what one might expect form a ship serving that purpose. There were, of course, areas with theater style padded seats, there was another area with tables and chairs for eating and there was a kids playroom with climbing structure. There was also a room with bunk beds for truck drivers to catch a few winks before they hit the road again. And, there was a women’s room for moms.
But there were some very Japanese adaptations as well. One area that was particularly Japanese was a large area with tatami mats on the floor for those who preferred to sit Japanese style or lie on the floor,. With my western mindset and old joints I was impressed with how many people choose to sit on the floor in the tatami room rather than take advantage of the cushy seats or tables and chairs. But, that’s why we visit other cultures – to see their customs, traditions, lifestyle, and the differences in how they conduct their daily lives. Quite enlightening.
It also speaks to the adaptability of the human body. If you’ve spent your entire life getting up and down from sitting or lying on the floor, it is no big deal and, apparently, preferred over western style seating – even for people who are getting on in years. For us though, it is not part of our daily routine so such maneuvers are way more challenging and once down on the floor quite uncomfortable.
But the day was calm and the ride was smooth as glass.
Awa Odori (Tokushima)
After departing the ferry on the bus once we arrived in Tokushima, our first stop was at the Awa Odori Kaikan (Awa Odori Organization). Awa Odori is a traditional Japanese dance that originated in the Tokushima Prefecture and is one of Japan's most famous and lively folk dance styles. The dance itself is characterized by unique rhythm and movements with the dancers forming lines and move in a coordinated manner, typically alternating between slow and deliberate paces. But they only use a small set of simple dance steps that are repeated in different combinations. This dance style can be traced back to the 16th century when the feudal lord Hachisuka Iemasa held a celebration for the completion of Tokushima Castle. The local townspeople, inspired by the festive atmosphere, started dancing in the streets. Over time, this dance evolved into what is now known as Awa Odori.
The Awa Odori Kaikan is housed in a building at the base of Mount Bizan and the building is also the lower end of a rope tram which goes up the mountain. Of course there is a large gift shop but on the 3rd floor is a small Awa Orori museum and on the 2nd floor is a theater where dance shows are performed.
Awa Odori Dance recital
Awa Odori Dance recital
Awa Odori Dance recital
One of the more interesting aspects of the dance recital was that in certain dances, the choreography required an equal number of males and females. But they seemed to be short of males so a female, dressed in the men’s costume, took one of the male roles.
Outside the building are some stairs going up to the small Himemiya Shrine as well as being the start of a trail (mostly stairs) that go up the mountain.
Stairs up to Hinnwnut shrine
Stairs leading up the mountain
Low Birth Rate Crisis
Unlike most industrialized countries in the world, for several decades Japan has been experiencing a major decline in its population. This is mostly due to low birth rates and as a result the population as a whole is declining and aging leaving fewer and fewer workers to sustain the economy, support the healthcare system and maintain the overall societal structure. As it turns out Japan’s birth rate is the lowest in the world. Of course everyone has an opinion on why this is, but there are some common threads which seem to be at the heart of the matter. These include hard to change social attitudes, delayed marriage, increased attention to careers by women and the cost of raising children. But, one must dig a little deeper to figure out how this affects the birth rate.
Let’s start with the work ethic. Japan is well known for its corporate philosophy of workers staying with a single company their entire career where the company looks out for the employee and the employee is devoted to the company. In other words it’s more than just a job. While this is good in many ways such as there rarely being layoffs, some of the customs and behaviors accompanying this may be influencing the birth rate (among other things). For example, I’ve been told that as an employee, you are expected to be at your desk before your boss arrives and you don’t leave at the end of the day before your boss. Another is that it is expected that on a regular basis (perhaps several times a week) you are expected to go out to dinner or to a bar with your co workers or boss after work. If you don’t do these things you are considered as being disloyal to the company, antisocial to your co-workers and you will not be considered for advancement in the company.
Photo of workers in Tokyo by Cory Schadt on Unsplash
The net affect, it seems, is that many office workers are in the office before 7:00 am and don’t get home till after 11:00 pm at night. This in turn means that if a couple wishes to have kids, only one of the parents will be able to hold down a full time job and the stay at home parent (almost universally the mom) winds up with 100% of the domestic duties. But, in this day and age, many young women want a career and don’t want to be the “stay at home mom” who never sees her husband. So, they decide to not have a family so they both can have careers.
The government is well aware of this problem and they are doing everything they can to fix the low birth rate problem, except what it would take to fix the low birth rate problem. They are offering to pay a significant (but one time) cash payment for each kid a couple has – but they are not making day dare any more affordable or available. They do give priority for day care slots to dual working parents but don’t encourage day care centers to stay open past around 5:00 or 6:00 pm. And so, the birth rate goes down.
Another population issue is that life expectancy in Japan is one of the highest in the world. In most regards this is a good thing, but coupled with a low birth rate the average age of the population is high and getting higher every year. This means that fewer and fewer working age people are supporting more and more retired people. As you get more and more elderly people needing care givers, those care givers are removed from being able to take other jobs which contribute to the GDP of the country.
So, one might ask, why not do what most other countries do and use foreign workers for elder care freeing up citizens for other jobs? The problem here is that Japan has traditionally had strict immigration policies and tightly controlled immigration. Also, as a society, the Japanese have traditionally not welcomed foreign immigrants into their communities. It is said that this is gradually changing but nowhere near as fast as the requirement for workers.
Iya Valley sites visited
After leaving Tokushima we headed out for two nights in the Iya valley which is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful unspoiled scenic areas. However, the Iya Valley has been a difficult place to visit. The valley itself is quite narrow with steep walls and therefore what roads they have are quite narrow, very winding, and at places quite steep and there is little public transportation to and within the valley. Although improvements are being made to the roads with the addition of many tunnels and widening projects, even today it is a challenge for visitors. In our case, we had to abandon our big tour bus at our hotel and instead divide into two smaller buses (not much bigger than those car rental shuttle busses you see in many airports) to navigate the roads in the valley.
Modern Highway bridge to improve access
But in the past it was even more difficult to make your way up the valley or come into it over the mountains. The river itself is not navigable, and on foot there were many places that required you to cross the river or scale steep walls. So, it became a refuge for groups who were either being routed from their prior places or just wanted to be left alone. For example, it was used as a refuge for members of the defeated Taira Clan (also known as Heike) who escaped to the region toward the end of the 12th century after losing the Gempei War (1180-1185).
From our bus it was hard to tell exactly where this valley starts but not too long after leaving the 4 lane highway in Miyoshi we started up into the mountains and things started getting mighty scenic. So, I’ll just include it all as part of the Iya Valley discussion even though some of it may not be and actual part of the valley. Once we exited the highway we were on two lane roads winding our way up some valley alongside the Yoshino River passing through small villages along the way.
Winding our way up the valley
Passing through a small village
Villages scattered along the Yoshino River
No the big bus did not go up that road
Every now and again one can find a bridge to get to the other side
Although the valley is well known for its untouched landscapes, lush green mountains, clear rivers, and traditional thatched-roof houses called "kayabuki", it also contains several other points of interest. These include some vine bridges, a scarecrow village, hot springs, and historic houses which are open to the public. Add in hiking, trekking and other outdoor adventure opportunities and one can see why it is becoming a tourist destination.
But the increase in tourism may also be influenced by factors beyond the scenery and better roads. One such factor is rural flight. As described above, the overall population of the country is declining but also the country is experiencing massive rural flight. Small towns and rural areas are becoming deserted as young people flock to the cities to find work. And as the population ages and residents die off towns are left with fewer and fewer residents. And the Iya valley has not been exempt from this.
What had been vibrant villages just a few decades ago are now mostly abandoned ghost towns with few, if any, residents. One way to visualize this is to look that the schools in the valley. A few decades ago there were 4 primary schools seeing to the education of a couple thousand children. Now, all but one has been closed and abandoned and the one that remains partially open has expanded to support grades K through 12 and even at that only has 35 students. This is not surprising if you consider that each year about 500 Japanese schools are closed due to lack of children.
Many abandoned houses in this hillside village of Ochiai
In an attempt to remain viable, some areas, like the Iya Valley, have started promoting the area for tourism as a way to bring much needed revenue into the decimated towns, and create some demand for hotels, restaurants and stores which in turn will need employees who will move into the area. As part of this effort they have put a good deal of effort into fixing up and promoting attractions that would bring tourists and we visited several of them. They are also engaging with tour companies around the world to include the Iya valley in tour itineraries and making local tour guides available to lead those tours while they are in the valley.
Along these same lines, many such areas are also starting to offer incentives to lure young people back from the cities. For example they may give families a free house or pay their rent, they may provide a monthly cash payment and pay moving expenses. Not to mention significant one time bonus payments.
A famous example is that in 2017 an office worker, Yohei Aoki, left his job in the city and took over an abandoned school in the Iya Valley which he then converted into his home (a really big home with many dozens of rooms). He converted one classroom into a café for tourists, and has fitted up other rooms as a hostel for travelers. The old principles office is now his living room, and other former classrooms have been repurposed for uses like a music studio (he’s a drummer). As word has gotten out about Yohei and his school to dwelling effort, many tourists and journalists go out of their way (literally) to check it out.
Abandoned School turned into a private home
But, it’s too early to tell if these extraordinary measures will stem the tide.
But it’s time to tell you what we saw in the valley
One of the things that the Iya Valley is famous for is its vine bridges called “kazurabashi” which span the Iya River. These are suspension bridges made using a technique called "kazura-nawa," which involves weaving thick vines together to form ropes to span the river. Each bridge is made from several tons of these vines such as the Wisteria floribunda vine or the ki-iro rattan vine both of which grow abundantly in the Valley. Between two of these parallel vine ropes they place wood planks or woven branches to form a walking surface.
At one point there were said to be 13 of these bridges in the valley, but now only 3 remain. Of the bridges that are left, their vines are replaced every 3 years, and for safety, steel cables are laced inside the vines. As for those other 9 bridges, some have been replaced with sturdier versions made of steel cables, or abandoned altogether once a road was constructed on the far side of the valley. The 3 vine versions are being maintained for cultural, historical and tourism purposes.
Vine bridge replaced by modern steel suspension bridge
Wide enough for a small car, but not sure I’d attempt it
The exact origins of the first vine bridges are not really known but they are believed to have been constructed around 800 years ago during the Heian period (794-1185). What is better known is that due to the sheer remoteness of the Iya Valley it was a popular hideout for samurai warriors and refugees over many centuries. The most infamous inhabitants during this period were members of the Taira clan who fled into the Valley after being defeated by the Minamoto clan in the Genpei War (1180-1185). The Minamoto clan went on to found the Kamakura Shogunate in the late 12th century.
The story goes that the bridges were constructed in such a manner that if an attacking force was approaching, with a few swift axe blows the vines supporting the bridge could be severed causing the bridge to drop into the deep canyon below which would stop the attacking force on the wrong side of the river.
Today, crossing these traditional vine bridges is an exciting experience. As you walk across, the bridge sways left and right and bounces up and down and the walking surface has large gaps between the planks or branches you walk on. The bridges have vine sides for safety these days but I suspect they originally did not. But even with a sort of vine side that can be used as a hand rail, many tourists choose to just admire the bridges from an overlook rather than to experience a crossing first hand.
Kazurabashi Vine Bridge
Kazurabashi Vine Bridge
Further up the valley are a pair of bridges commonly known as the “Double Vine Bridges” but are officially the “oku-iya (double) vine bridges”. The one called the “husband” or “male” bridge sits higher above the water. is wider and is twice as long as the other one. The other one is called the “wife” or “female” bridge bridge. Even though this pair of bridges have gender specific names, this has only to do with size and location and does not pertain who was allowed to use which bridge.
Contrary to intuition, the “double” part of the name does not refer to there being two of these bridges very near each other but rather refers to their double layered construction. Legend goes that during times of war, the local villagers would cut down the lower layer of the bridge (the part you walk on) to prevent enemy forces from crossing, leaving only the upper layer intact. After the conflict, the bridge would be reconstructed by replacing the lower layer using fresh vines. It is also convenient that the double-layered design provides stability and strength to withstand the flow of the river during floods and the weight of pedestrians.
Men's Double Vine Bridge
Men's Double Vine Bridge
Woman’s Double Vine Bridge
Woman’s Double Vine Bridge
We spent 2 nights in the Iya valley so that we’d have a full day of touring along those narrow twisty roads. As you recall from the last installment, the night before we stayed in a monastery where we slept on the floor and had traditional Japanese vegetarian dinner. Well, the two nights here in the Iya Valley were not in a monastery but were in a traditional Japanese hotel with traditional Japanese dinners. In other words, once again we were on futon mats sleeping on the floor. Pretty much the same as before for another 2 nights. And, like the monastery, the dinners were lots of small portions of many different kinds of vegetables.
I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but even though grocery stores were full of fruits like apples, oranges, pineapple, grapes, cherries, strawberries and even tomatoes, these items never seemed to find their way to our plates in the various restaurants we visited. I wonder why that is?
But the breakfast included coffee and there was a shower in the room and so all things considered it was a step up from the monastery. Speaking of showers, there is a very common custom in Japan in how they build showers. Rather than surrounding the shower (either one in a tub or standalone) with an enclosure to keep the water confined to the shower area, the entire room is water proofed with tile or other material and just put a drain in the floor. Many times the toilet and/or sink are in a different room, but sometimes not. In this particular hotel there was a tub but the shower head was just over the floor area next to the tub and not over the tub. This of course makes it much easier for people who have trouble stepping over the sides of a tub as they just have to walk into the room. But, one has to break our US habit of bringing your towel into the shower room as if you do, you’ll have a very wet towel to dry yourself with.
The Chiiori House is a well preserved historic farmhouse and is considered to be one of the finest examples of traditional Japanese architecture in the country. It dates back to around 1720 making it the 2nd oldest house in the Iya Valley. It is built in the minka style which is characterized by a thatched roof, wooden beams, and earthen walls.
The name "Chiiori" means "house of the flute" reflecting the tranquil and peaceful atmosphere of the place. It is situated in a rural setting well above the valley floor but surrounded by mountains and forests, offering a glimpse into the traditional way of life in rural Japan.
The house was purchased in 1973 by Alex Kerr, an American author and Japanologist dedicated to the conservation of traditional Japanese architecture. Mr. Kerr restored the house to its original configuration and materials to use for cultural and educational purposes. Originally there was no road to the house and the only access was to walk an hour from the Iya River road below. And, as those on our bus can attest, today there is a winding one-lane road up to the house.
In 2012, the Chiiori House underwent a major restoration. Over the course of a year, the roof was re-thatched, the walls and under floor structure was redone with damage repair, earthquake protection was incorporated, and amenities built in, such as plumbing, bath, toilets, lighting, and heating systems. However, most of these changes are invisible, and the thatched roof and old pine floors are as they've always been.
The house features wood burning floor hearths (called irori) and pine floors blackened by hundreds of years of smoke from those irori.. This particular house is unusual for farm houses in Japan because there are no ceilings (except over the small sleeping rooms) – just open rafters exposing the underside of the thatched roof. It was designed this way because for much of the Edo period tobacco was a leading crop of Iya and villagers used to hang the tobacco in the rafters to dry and absorb smoke from the irori. Due to the lack of ceilings, Chiiori has a dramatic wide-open feel to its interior.
Today, Chiiori House is used as an educational cultural heritage site and has been made available to the public for overnight accommodations.
Open floor hearth called a irori
Traditional artifacts (not withstanding plastic beach balls) displayed by front window
Open rafters where they dried tobacco
A tea kettle is almost a required permanent fixture in traditional Japanese houses
On our way up the Iya valley on our full day we stopped at a tiny restaurant in Higashiiyaniia, by the Iya Valley River simply called the Soba Noodle Shop for lunch. There are two houses side by side with a common walkway down some stairs between them. One contains the restaurant and the other is where they live and make the Soba Noodles. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d never see it as there are no signs of any kind either by the road or for that matter at the front door either. It just looks like another couple of houses in a row of such houses.
In Japan, noodle shops proliferate like junk food restaurants do in the US. Many are of the fast food variety but some are more sit down formal affairs. In Japan there are a dozen or so types of noodles you can find, but by far the most popular for noodle shops in the areas we visited are Ramen, Soba and Udon noodle shops. Ramen are made from wheat flour, eggs, salt, and water and are long and curly. The noodles are dried in the form of a brick. The ease of preparing ramen noodles within minutes by just boiling makes it an ideal on-the-go meal. Soba noodles are straight and brown-in color and mostly made from buckwheat. While sometimes these are stir-fried, mostly you find them in a soup. The noodles have a nutty flavor. In contrast Udon noodles are white and like ramen are made of wheat flour. Udon come in a variety of shapes and thicknesses and are cooked in boiling water like any other pasta and are typically served in soup.
But, the Iya valley is known for its Soba noodles and so our stop for lunch this day was at the Soba Noodle Shop restaurant. In typical Japanese style, you sit on little cushions on the floor around a large square table that is bout a foot tall. Most of the food was, again, traditional Japanese vegetables but the main thing here was the Soba Noodle Soup. The noodles and the soup are made by Mr. and Ms. Tsuzuki who are quite famous for their Soba Buckwheat noodles. They have won many competitions and have been featured in documentary films for these noodles. They make the noodles in the house next door (where they live upstairs) and each day Mr. Tsuzuki drives freshly made Soba noodles to restaurants all over the area.
Scarecrow Village, also known as Nagoro Scarecrow Village or Doll Village, is a unique and some say creepy village in the mostly abandoned village of Nagoro. It gained international attention due to its large population of handmade scarecrows that outnumber the actual human residents. At one time this village had over 300 residents and was the location of a regional school. But by 2020 the population had fallen to a mere 27 (live) people and may have gone down since then.
One of the many “Scarecrow” dolls around town
Sometime In the early 2000s, Tsukimi Ayano, whose family left the area when she was a child, moved back to to look after her father. In her spare time she decided to make a doll in his likeness that she placed in a field as if he was tending a crop. She has since made more than 400 of these life size dolls, which she calls scarecrows, of which over 300 have been placed around the mostly deserted town. Many of the dolls represent actual people who had lived there but others are famous people including one of Donald Trump waiting in bus shelter by the side of the road being ignored by a flock of other people.
Trump is the one second from the left
Tsukimi teaches workshops on how to construct scarecrows and some have followed in her footsteps in making scarecrows for their own villages. The old school, which closed in 2012, houses a large number of these dolls in the gym as if there was some sort of social event taking place there and others are placed in classrooms. In one classroom, two of the doll children are self-portraits by the last two (live) students to attend the school and they dressed them in their own clothes.
“Event” at the school Gym
As you wander around the town you come across hundreds of these scarecrows in various poses and settings. They can be found in fields, gardens, schools, bus stops, and even lining the streets. There are three men sitting at the base of a telephone pole on the outskirts of the village, a man fishing at the river, a group in a bus shelter, utility workers performing roadwork, school crossing guard helping a kid across the street, people in shops, or just sitting out front of a local store on a bench.
Road Construction worker on a break
Tending the field
Waiting for the school bus with mom
Fishing for dinner
Every scarecrow, whether based on a real person or not, has an entry in a registry in town which lists the scarecrows name, gender, age, personality and life story. The idea was to bring life back to the village by re-populating it with these dolls going about what would have been normal daily activities around town. Some of the remaining live residents even say hi to or talk to these new residents as they go about their business.
The figures start with a pair of wooden sticks to form that basic structure. Then rolled newspaper, old cotton clothing or rags are used as stuffing to form the body shape and these are wrapped with cloth. If the scarecrow will be placed outside a waterproof “raincoat” is placed on the figure which is then dressed in appropriate clothing for the role in the village of the person. Buttons and yarn are used for details such as hair and eyes. The figures are wired in place to prevent wind or just plain gravity from moving them around. People from all over the world who have visited or heard about this village now donate most of the clothing used to dress the scarecrows.
A visit with “The Mayor”
As a farewell to the Iya valley, our last stop was at a private house which is the home of Mr. Minami, self proclaimed “Mayor” of the area. He farms and gardens on the slope next to his house which is in the village of Ochiai. When our bus pulled up there were a dozen or so folks from the village standing out front with a welcome sign and waving American flags.
Although not elected, Mr. Minami has been the leader of a group of people still living in the village who are trying to revitalize the area through tourism and incentives to bring back residents. For one thing, he invites tour groups (like ours) to his home for a demonstration of traditional tea roasting which he then brews for his guests. This accompanied by home made donuts and tea cake made by his wife. Many of his neighbors come over for these events to welcome the tourists.
Mr. Minami (blue shirt) and neighbors welcome bus of American tourists to his home
View from Mr. Minami’s back patio
Our next installment of this series will bring us to another temple in Zentsuji, Udon noodle making and Ritsurin Park in Takamatsu, and a ferry over to the island of Naoshima.
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION O WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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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)
Keywords: 4 main Japanese Islands, Awa Odori, blog, Chiiori House, dan hartford photo, Danjo-Garan temple, dantravelblog, dantravelblogjapan2023, Doll Village, Double Vine Bridge, Himemiya Shrine, Iya Valley, Japan, Japan low birth rate, Kazurabashi Vine Bridge, Nagoro Village, Noodles in Japan, Ochiai Village, oku-iya vine bridges, Population Crisis in Japan, Scarecrow Village, Shikoku Island, Tokushima, Vine Bridges
I just wanted to let you know how much I have enjoyed reading your blogs and looking at your pictures from our trip.
Hope you and Ellen are well.
I thoroughly enjoyed this edition of your blog! We visited Shikoku to walk part of the Shikoku 88 pilgrimage route, but we stayed in the general area of Tokushima. Now I want to visit Ilya and walk over at least one of the vine bridges!
old Road Scholar co-participant- Thanks Dan - I am really enjoying your pictures (of course) and descriptions. We were contemplating a trip to Japan in the fall but it doesn't look like it will happen. Your's is the next best experience.
Thanks, Dan, for another great installment with marvelous photos! Amazing terrain, scary roads, and lovely rivers. Glad to get to see all this without having to sleep on the floor - you guys are tough! All the best, b
So glad to hear from you Dan!
I always enjoy revisiting our adventure, and your pictures are wonderful.
Looking forward to next time.
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