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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Review: Patagonia Half Mass Messenger Bag

It might surprise you, but until Quora gave me a Patagonia Half Mass, I'd never owned or used a bicycle messenger bag. Yes, despite all the swag frequently handed out at Google, I never managed to swing getting so much as a Timbuk2 messenger bag as swag.

I hate carrying things on my body when cycling. Backpacks suck, with the REI Flash 18 the only bag that I consider tolerable, and even then only for light loads. The Half Mass is pretty standard as messenger bags go: you have a shoulder sling, and a hip belt that attaches in one of two locations to sling the bag low on your back or high on your back depending on whether you're riding or walking.

There are multiple pockets, including a laptop specific pocket, side pockets for a bottle, a top zipper pocket, and a couple of compartments. My biggest complaint about this bag is that it's way too big. If you load it all up, even walking around is a major pain, and I'd have a tough time considering it handy for anything more than a local milk run.

Riding with it, it does swing a bit, even with all the attachments and buckles buckled in the right place. It's not a great carrier.

Ultimately, none of the "carry on the body" bags can hold a candle to the traditional English style traverse saddlebag. If you commute or carry stuff on a regular basis on your bike, I suggest you get one of those instead. Save bags like these for your bus/train/driving commute or the occasional milk run with your racing bike.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Bowen's First Bike Tour

It was time for Bowen's first overnight bike tour. We grabbed the bike, detached the front section, and stuffed it into the Honda Fit. Since mom wasn't coming along, we could fit both of us in the car with no problems.

We drove to La Honda, assembled the bike, installed the panniers, and then rode off up Haskins hill. It was a beautiful clear day, and we could get sunlight through the trees in the Redwoods. The climb took a little while but the descent to Pescadero was beautiful as usual. Riding onto North street on the approach, Bowen opted to bypass the goat farm, and we ended up at Norm's market around 1:00pm. It'd been quite a while since I'd last been to Norm's market, and I was impressed by the newly installed bike repair station. Bowen told me that we weren't really bike touring, because we'd put the bike in the car and driven out, rather than just riding from our house!
We took our time with lunch, and left for the pigeon point lighthouse around 2:00pm after buying groceries for dinner. It was only a 6 mile trip but we opted to use Bean Hollow road, and despite the tailwind it took us an hour to get there. We didn't wait very long before Calvin, Kevin and Pamela showed up and we checked in, grabbing the sunset spots for the hot tub.

Bowen and Calvin upon seeing the dorm rooms immediately asked to be on the top bunks. Once 2 boys are around it was a chore getting the bedsheets installed. But we did it and eventually managed to get them to go play outside.

We had unusually good luck with the weather, since the projected rain didn't show up, and we got a glorious sunset from the hot tub.

The next morning we had an unusually still weather, and so left the hostel unusually late, around 8:30am. We rode back through Bean Hollow road but opted to take Stage Road to 84 instead of going back over Haskins hill. This gave us 1600' of climbing, but with Pomegranate Clif bars (Bowen's favorite), it took us only 2.5 hours.

It never ceases to surprise me how much difference each age brings in a child. It took Bowen all of 3 months to decide he didn't like having seat belts on the bike. But recently, he started taking advantage of the seat belt: whenever he wanted to have something in his hands (like a drink, or a clif bar), he would ask to have me belt in him. With the biggish descents enough to scare him this time, he also asked for the seat belt whenever we had a big descent. This was great.

We arrived back at the car around 11:15. Bowen loved the hostel, the hot tub, but declared that "uphill makes me slow, and downhill tickles me, so I only like no-hill."

I've had people ask me whether Bowen ever gets bored on the bike, but with so much to see and do, and with nearly every trip being new to him, that hardly ever happens. I think adults who never ride bicycles for long distances simply project their own experiences onto kids who don't have the same attitude. All in all our little overnight trip had us riding 41 miles with about 2400' of climbing.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: Do Fathers Matter?

Do Fathers Matter? is a book about fathers as parents. As a father myself I checked out the audio book from the library and eagerly listened to it hoping to find a few interesting pieces. Let's see if I can summarize what I got out of the book:

  • Until recently, nobody thought that fathers made a difference to the kids other than bringing home a paycheck. In fact, nobody even thought that fathers bonded with babies the way mothers did.
  • As a matter of fact, infants appear to prefer to play with fathers. The current thinking is that it's because mom's always feeding the baby or changing his/her diapers, but when daddy shows up it's play-time!
  • Dads play differently with children than moms. In particular, fathers are more likely to rough-house with the kids and present them with challenging, unpredictable situations. This is important preparation for an unpredictable, stressful world. In fact, a study shows that in very young kids, it's OK or even preferred for the parent to push the kid to the point of crying before backing off.
  • Older dads (anyone over 30!) increase the risk of schizophrenia among their children. This may not show up until in the late teens.
  • Interestingly enough, older dads also pass on longer telomares to their children, and to their children's children, granting them longer lives. No explanation was given in the book as to why this occurs.
  • Dads still don't do as much as moms in terms of child-rearing, but studies are starting to point out that this may actually not be because dads are uninterested in child-rearing. In particular, moms frequently discourage fathers from parenting by constantly criticizing the father. It turns out that in couples where the woman actively encourages the father to spend time with the children, not only does the father typically do more of the work with children, he enjoys it more as well. (Duh!)
  • Missing dads seem to hurt daughters a lot --- rates of teenage pregnancy and increased risk taking seem to be a lot higher for daughters that did not have a father in the house when they were growing up. No corresponding study has been done on the impact of missing fathers for sons, but some speculation was presented in the book. In one interesting study, even asking daughters to write an essay about a negative experience with their fathers led to increased risk-taking!
  • Certain genes coming from mom or dad are actually imprinted in such a way that marks those genes as coming from mom or dad. The details behind that imprinting is discussed quite a bit in the book, and reveals the evolutionary tug of war between mother and fetus: it's in the interest of the fetus to absorb as much as possible of the mothers' resources, while it's in the interest of the mother to try to spread out what she's giving to several children in order to diversify the portfolio of her children.
All in all, interesting stuff, but less deep than I expected. Worth a quick browse from the library.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: Uncharted 4: A Thieves End (PS4)

I never buy games on pre-order. I'm the kind of person who can wait for months, buy it on discount, and then resell it for a profit. But Naughty Dog has won my trust over the years, with the Uncharted titles being for me the best blend of action, adventure, story, and exquisite art direction. They just don't make movies like these any more, and I couldn't help myself. (It also doesn't hurt that Amazon gives you a 20% pre-order discount, making the price easier to swallow)

Uncharted 4 is the last of the Nathan Drake stories. The graphics are nothing short of amazing. Bear in mind that the PS4 is weaker than my 7 year old PC from the point of view of compute power, and has a GPU that's weaker than the one I bought in 2013. That's pretty weak stuff, but I never saw anything on the PC that even comes close to how pretty Uncharted 4 looks. Heck, if you compare Uncharted 4 to the latest Pixar movie, you'll see that in many ways, the Pixar movie cuts corners and goes for an art direction that favors computer animation, and requires gobs of rendering power while the game goes for a realistic (albeit gorgeously beautiful) look and yet is rendered in real time by the PS4. Just thinking about it makes me want to pick up my jaw from the floor when I think about the experience.

The thing with these "movies as game" video game experiences is that it's all about pacing. Uncharted 4 has a very different pacing than Uncharted 2, the (previous) best of the series. While only 2 chapters in Uncharted 2 had a "walking simulator" feel to the game, that sort of pacing and free roam exploring with no threats occupies huge sections of Uncharted 4. This gives the player plenty of room to breathe, but unfortunately also adds to the game as far as being sort of a "one shot". A lot of the value of the game goes away on a repeated play through.

The music, art direction and action sequences are all very well done (though the boss fight at the end is a bit of a let down). But what makes the game work is the consistent attention to story: the characters are treated with respect, and at every reveal, we're drawn further into the story. At this point, let me provide a spoiler warning so you read no further if you haven't played it and the story matters to you.

The story takes place years after Uncharted 3, when Nathan Drake has settled down to a boring job as a technical diver. Then his long lost brother Sam shows up and we go into a flash back as we finally learn how the Drake brothers got their names, and how that quest led to the current state of affairs. Note that Sam's never been mentioned in any of the previous games, so this bit of ret-conning strains any suspension of disbelief you might have had, but it's done decently such that you don't feel like it's too wrong. Sam, of course, is lying through and through, but again, it's a reflection of what's been driving Nathan Drake through the previous games. The quest takes you from Italy to Madagascar, and the flashbacks get you a view of Panama. It's all very pretty. And, it's a chase after pirates. This made this a particularly good game for me after reading Pirate Hunters.

There are lots of references to the previous games throughout the story. If you've played through all the other stories, I think you'll get a lot more out of Uncharted 4 than someone who just started with this latest (and supposedly last) installment. I think above all, Uncharted 4 sells you on the character relationships and what they do for each other. And it doesn't do it just in dialogue and cut scenes, but also in the way the characters act. In one of the early scenes, I had Nathan Drake to a stealth take down of an enemy, and I fully expected to have to immediately turn and take out the enemy next to him. To my surprise, I saw that Sam Drake had already taken down the other enemy. I was stunned. To my mind, this is why the Uncharted series does better than even the rebooted Tomb Raider. When playing as Lara Croft, you feel as though the world is full of idiots who can't even find something that's right in front of them without you having to "quest" for it. As Nathan Drake, you're part of a team --- your wife might take out the enemy who's shooting at you, your brother might be trying to distract another one, while your old buddy Sully's scrambling to catch up to you. You're rarely alone in this game and as a result you feel much better about its milieu.

This is not to say that Uncharted 4 is perfect: it's not. As a game, the Tomb Raider series does a better job: the cover system's better, and the collectibles and upgradeable weapons all provide crunchy mechanics that force you to make full use of your skill. But none of the characters in Tomb Raider ever make you feel like you should care about them (not even Lara Croft), while that's not true in Uncharted 4.

Needless to say, Uncharted 4 comes highly recommended. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that you should buy a PS4 just for the game, I'd say that if you own a PS4, you owe it to yourself to play it. After you're done picking your jaw up from the floor, you might consider that it's not very replayable and sell it, but while you're playing it there's no question that this is a unique and satisfying experience.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Review: Rayman Legends (PS Vita)

I rarely review games that I can't (or won't) finish, but I'll make an exception for Rayman Legends. Rayman Legends is a platformer, which is my least favorite genre. But the reviews were all rated so highly that I picked it up on a sale, and I have to say that the reviews are mostly right.

The game doesn't have any story to speak of. Or if it does, the story's lost on me. As with every platformer, the goal of the game is to move from left to right, jumping, flying, punching, or running as needs be. There are 5 worlds, each of which has their own gimmicks, and each level is different. What you do have to do, however, is to rescue certain characters and pick up lums (basically mario coins) in order to unlock further levels or special bonus items (some of which are levels from a previous game, Rayman Origins).

What's interesting about the levels is that they're actually very well designed. The gimmicks are fun to figure out, and at least one world in each level is a musical level. In a musical level, you run and jump according to the beats in the soundtrack (though you must use your eyes as well, since sometimes you have to punch) in order to complete the level. One of the tracks is eye of the tiger, and it's a lot of fun. On the vita, you even get special "murphy" levels, which introduces a character you guide through a level using the touch screen. It's a nice change of pace, and some of those levels are quite creative as well.

What I disliked is that you have to rescue a lot of characters in order to unlock the whole game. While I could unlock all 5 worlds as a casual player, the 6th, musical-only level would need me to go through and play all the levels repeatedly until I got a perfect score and rescued every character in order to unlock. Not only would that result in very sore thumbs, I just don't have the time to do it. For any other game this would cause me to be unhappy and not recommend it, but Rayman Legends is packed full of content that I'll forgive this.

This game is worth picking up on a sale, and while you're unlikely to finish it all the way, you'll get enough out of it that it would be money well spent. Recommended.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Review: What It Is Like To Go To War

After I read Matterhorn, I went to see what other books Karl Marlantes had written, and the non-fiction work What It Is Like To Go To War showed up.

Partly a treatise on war and its effects on the young men who are sent out as warriors to do dirty jobs that their elders thought up, part a "behind the scenes" memoir about the events that went on in Matterhorn, it is uneven but still worth reading (or in my case auditing via audiobook).

The first thing you notice if you've already read Matterhorn (especially in as close proximity as I had) is how little fiction was in Matterhorn. By the time you're done with this book, you'll realize that calling Matterhorn is only fictional in the sense that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is. Names have changed.  In the novel, you don't see the medals that Marlantes win as a result of his actions, that's pretty much it.

What you do get out of this book that isn't apparent in Matterhorn was how much Marlantes liked combat. At one point, he noted (and this is where audiobooks really suck compared to reading a real book --- I can't search the book and pull out the quote) that as a 21 year old XO with a gunnery sergeant and a PFC on a mission, he had a staggering amount of firepower available: he could rain down artillery shells from 3 artillery fire bases, he could call in fire from the heavens as napalm via air-strikes, he had specially custom made machine-guns capable of tearing apart the entire landscape. And then there were the RPGs, LAWs, and grenades. The jeep he was in was so bristling with firepower that he actively wanted the enemy to try to stop him, just so he could get a chance to use it all. His jeep was a veritable chariot of the gods. And society actively handed a 21 year old with that much power to maim, kill, and destroy, and asked him to do it!

Repeatedly, the book emphasizes rituals. A lot of the problems with the Vietnam war was that there was no transition between the arena of war and civilian society. Marlantes describes a desperate battle to evacuate wounded battles during a mission, where the helicopters were so crowded that he had to leave on his R&R by hanging on to the lip of the door with his legs in the air. Hours later he was in Australia. No wonder reports of soldiers carousing and otherwise going crazy were fairly regular during R&R --- they were still charged with adrenaline from the fight. Marlante points out that in today's wars, it's more insidious. With drone warfare, you could be killing people via video camera during the day and still go home for dinner.

Marlantes covers PTSD, and not surprisingly suggests again that better training in the form of philosophy and room for reflection and "talking down from the warrior state" for the returning veteran be a strong part of military tradition.

What really tears at my heart is Marlantes' description of his return from Vietnam. It really was true that young women spat on the veterans, many of whom did not really want to go to war. At least that part seems to have changed for the better over the years.

I recommend this book. It's not nearly as consistently good a book as Matterhorn, but if you enjoyed Matterhorn, you'll want to read this book for the behind the scenes exploration of what happened both before and after the events in the novel, which you will never look at again as fiction.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Review: Ancillary Justice

Ancilliary Justice won the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke Awards, but it took me multiple tries to get into the novel enough to read it. Upon completing it, I understand why: it's the kind of novel that seems almost designed to win awards, rather than read well, or even necessarily be a fun read.

The going is slow, and the protagonist, while she reveals who she is fairly early on, doesn't make a lot of sense --- a lot of what she does appear to be counter-productive, and for someone who's supposed to be a hyper-intelligent AI, her plans appear vague, ill-formed, and her abilities only show up in the physical realm --- either being an impossibly good shot, or being hyper-aware of how she appears to other AIs who are similarly sensitive.

The innovative parts of the novel are interesting: the primary villain isn't really one, and the motivation of the main character, Breq (formerly known as the AI ship Justice of Toren) is obscure and spoken of only at a distance.

Ultimately, however, I never cared about any of the characters in the novel, and the milleu isn't really explained/exposited well. This might be forgivable if the viewpoint character was merely human, or an unreliable narrator. But well, the viewpoint character is a multi-thousand year old AI, and she's not unreliable (in fact, she's supremely reliable at the conclusion of the novel).

I don't think this novel deserves it's Hugo/Nebula though it's quite conceivable that the year it won was an unusually poor year for novels. In fact, though I did finish the novel, I'm not excited to go out and read the next one in the series, which means that I can't really recommend it.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review: Lonely Planet Tokyo, Kyoto, and Japan

Compared to the cost of a trip to Japan, buying guidebooks is cheap. So when the local library ran out of copies to checkout, I didn't hesitate and bought all 3 Japanese guidebooks. I also bought the Japan Touring Mapple from Omni Map.

In all cases, the pull out maps were pretty useless. They cover too small a section of the city, and aren't referred to at all in the text. I have to ask why they even bother!

Lonely Planet Tokyo: Their recommendation of Homeikan for best-allround Ryokan was great. Not only is the service amazing, their breakfast is good, their baths are great, they have an onsite laundry machine, and the area is quiet. The place is also incredibly affordable. This alone paid for the price of the book. The recommendations for SkyTree and the bigger shopping areas such as Akhibahara and Shinjuku could use some work. The advice on Nishiki Market could also use more color (such as "show up well before noon as the wait outside restaurants is north of an hour at lunch time"). But I'll forgive them all that because of the recommendation of Homeikan. The omission of a subway map is also questionable.

Lonely Planet Japan: Their coverage of the Matsumoto area was great. I'd discount their comments about renting a car and driving if you're from California. If you regularly drive Highway 1, Highway 9, visit the Sierras or the Trinity Alps, you're used to much worse driving conditions than anywhere in Japan. Rent a car and go where you please! Their recommendation of Sugimoto Ryokan was outstanding. Their recommendation of Ougatou more questionable, not because the hotel was bad, but because they probably should have prefixed it, "which was the best season to go?", with the note that late Spring might not have the best conditions. Their disparagement of the Yudanaka Monkey Park was unwarranted, but if the book hadn't contained a sidebar on it I wouldn't have known about it and wouldn't have been diverted so we could go there. Their mention of Obuse was also a worthy side trip.

Lonely Planet Kyoto: Their neighborhood description caused us to pick Yumiko's AirBnB listing.  Huge win. The photos are also really good. We basically picked where to go by flipping through the photos at the front of the book and then going there. The restaurant recommendations were also decent. The only thing I can complain about is that they said that if Kyoto is booked solid, you can stay at Nara instead. I think that's a mistake. Unlike Tokyo, Kyoto has next to no subway, so rapid transit from Kyoto station is nearly non-existent. You're stuck with buses, which are really too slow and frustrating to get anywhere quickly. If you're visiting Kyoto, stay in Kyoto. Ignore all advise to do otherwise, in this book or elsewhere.

All in all, these 3 books were worth the money. It's unusual that I take trips where the visits to cities is more important than touring the countryside. But Japan is unusual: the country side in Japan isn't really all that pretty, especially the mountain roads. The cities are where all the action is, but are crowded as heck. So these types of guide are more useful than is usual.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Review: eConnect Japan

I have a T-mobile Simple Choice global plan. But word from one of my friends who visits Japan frequently is that it was unreliable, and he talked me into renting a WiFi-To-Go Pocket WiFi router from eConnect Japan. I believed him because as late as in 2009, I had to rent a phone from the airline to get phone service in Japan. How quickly things change!

It turned out this was an unnecessary expense. Everywhere I had connectivity through the WiFi-To-Go router, I also had very fast internet speeds on my Moto G via T-mobile. Further more, in many cases, the Wi Fi router would go to sleep without warning, and I'd be stuck without Wi Fi, but found that my T-mobile unlimited data plan was still fast enough to make a Skype call, for instance.

On top of that, the device itself has a natively small battery, so eConnect supplies you with a battery extender that you then plug into it. That battery would last all day, but now you have 2 more things to charge at night instead of one. Given that we were traveling light, I only brought a 2-way charger, so it was a bit of a chore getting all the devices charged.

I supposed if we made use of the tablet more, the WiFi router might have come in useful. Even then, the package we received had all sorts of warnings against download video, large files, or doing anything interesting with the WiFi router.

In any case, I found myself regretting that I paid eConnect any money at all, and by contrast, was very happy with my Moto G running on T-mobile. Next time, I will not bother with eConnect, and I suggest you don't, either.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Review: The Eagle Tree

I rarely read my Kindle First books, despite frequently selecting one and downloading it to my Kindle anyway. The Eagle Tree is a rare exception.

The Eagle Tree is a book written from the perspective of an autistic boy of 14 years, March Wong. He's obsessed with trees, climbing them, identifying them, their place in the ecosystem, how they work. When his mom moves him to Olympia, he identifies a tree near the city as being a Ponderosa Pine, and decides that he would like to climb it.

Unfortunately, a developer has bought the land and plans to build on it. This leads March to try to preserve the forest, leading him out of his autistic shell to interact with those who can help him. The story of his bittersweet (eventual) victory is well-written, with transparent prose, and a realistic view of what those on the autism spectrum.

The novel is short but worth your time. It's not as good as Born on a Blue Day, however, so if you haven't read that, try it first.

A few EOS M3 Tips

I promised not to provide a long-term review of the EOS M3, and indeed, I won't. I didn't do most of the shooting during the Japan trip, and it's not that easy to shoot anyway when you have a 40 pound backpack that wriggles and moves. The few times I did handle the camera, I'm always impressed by it. It's a sweet piece of kit, and I can only anticipate that as mirrorless cameras improve these will increasingly take the place of DSLR, though I expect that full frame devices used with top technical skill will still be the way to go when you're not pressed by other obligations.

I did notice a few things that I think are worth considering when you work with the equipment:

  • There's a list of lenses that basically won't work with the EOS M3, even with the mount adapter. In a fit of absent mindedness I can no longer find that list, but basically anything that doesn't say USM or STM on the lens is pretty much not going to focus well on the EOS M3. (And yes, unfortunately my 50mm/1.8 II is on that list, which explains the poor performance!)
  • What really really drains the battery on the EOS M3 is the WiFi/NFC picture transfer to smartphone. It actually doesn't drain the battery that much to actively transfer photos. What kills it is that once you're done with the transfer, if you do not turn off the camera manually, it doesn't go into sleep mode and instead just drains your battery maintaining a WiFi network. I would advise getting a spare LP-E17 and keeping it charged because you will forget!
  • One of the principles of flash photography is you want to keep the flash as far away from the camera as possible. Thanks to how small the camera itself is, and the relatively small sensor size, the standard for this is very low for the EOS M3.  Even my ancient 220EX performs very well on the EOS M3, and I can only imagine that newer flashes and/or bigger flashes do even better. Note that the 220EX is relatively tall compared to the newer (even smaller) 270EX, so I'm not sure I'd bother upgrading. By the way, since my primary use of the external flash is as a fill flash, I always dial in an exposure compensation of -2/3rd.
  • Get an OP-Tech strap for it. The camera and lens combo might be light, but if you're in the habit of wearing T-shirts or collar-less shirts, then you'll discover that the OP-Tech straps work much better on bare skin, and it does reduce bouncing.
  • Lightroom 6, for whatever reason, tends to raise the exposure levels of the photos taken with the EOS M3 if you hit the "auto" button. Either don't use the "auto" button, or manually set the exposure back after hitting it. (I use the auto button to get some of the way towards adjusting the highlights and shadows sliders without having to do it manually)
The EOS M3 is a surprisingly good piece of kit for the price. As long as you don't make the mistake of buying crappy lenses for it, you can expect superb imagery in exchange for a bit of thinking about how to shoot. It's not perfect, but nothing is. When in doubt, f/8 and be there!

Monday, May 16, 2016

Review: Bastion (PS Vita)

I picked up Bastion on the PS4, but because of cross-play and cross-buy, ended up playing it most on the PS Vita. If I had to summarize the game, I'd call it "Diablo with cute animations." That's fine. I liked Diablo 3, and it's a fine game, but for whatever reason, I found Bastion not very playable.

For one thing, the main character is balky, and doesn't move very well. You get 3 weapons, a melee weapon, a ranged weapon, and a special skill. Periodically, new weapons are introduced, and you also get a chance to upgrade what weapons you have. Unfortunately, what you do with each weapon really isn't much, and there's not much by way of getting upgrade materials, so I ended the game with heaps of money in the inventory, and not much to upgrade with.

The story was OK, but it's really just an excuse to grind a long. I did not react emotionally to the story, even when a character you're supposed to care about was kidnapped. The denouement didn't do much for me either.

My problem is that after the Witcher 3, I'm afraid I find games that hit a lesser standard to be not really worth the time. I mostly played Bastion during a long trans-pacific flight, and finished it out of a sense of obligation.

Not recommended.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Review: Deuter Kid Comfort III Baby Carrier

In 2013, I killed the Kelty FC 3.0 Child Carrier. My rule with equipment is that if I kill it once, I'll exchange it at REI. If I kill it twice, I'll shop for something better. In this case, I got a coupon which got me the Deuter Kid Comfort III for under $230, as opposed to the regular $300 price.

I just came back from a 2 week trip in Japan where I didn't bother bringing a stroller and just carried Boen around in the backpack whenever we needed to transport him. The backpack is rated for about 40 pounds of kid and 9 pounds of gear. It has a built in sun shield/rain shield, but is an open configured backpack, so don't expect it to keep your kid dry in rain without him wearing waterproof clothing. In practice, mommy will probably scream at you long before kiddie gets wet and cold.

The major problem with this pack is that it's not really made for skinny men with no hips. As you can guess, I fall into that category, so I cinch up the waist belt all the way to minimum, clip it on, and luckily that's enough that it doesn't slip. Once you do that, all the weight is on your hip and you can definitely move around with the kid all day.
As you can see, I could bend down and shoot one kid and still have the other one in the backpack. I wouldn't call it the most comfortable position in the world, but it's doable, and I was doing this multiple days during the trip. At various points during the trip, I'd have Boen in the backpack, be towing a rolling luggage, have my CPAP sling bag around my neck, and the EOS M3 kit in a bag around my neck as well, and then walk to the hotel from the train station. That I could manage it all was a testament to how comfortable this pack was.

Boen seemed very comfortable as well, falling asleep in the backpack more than once. When Boen wasn't using the bag, Bowen would try to get into the bag and sit in it. I've carried Bowen in it a couple of times (he weighs about 10 pounds more than Boen). It's OK, but it's not more comfortable than just carrying him directly on my shoulders, though it probably is more comfortable for him. Since the pack itself weighs almost 10 pounds, whenever I can carry Bowen on my shoulders I do so rather than using the pack.

The one bug is in the kick-stand. It is possible for the kick-stand to fold in under the lowest metal bar at the bottom of the pack. Then when you reach back to unfold it you'll have to yank and yank to get it to unfold so you can put the pack down. If there's any improvement feasible, I'd say that limiting the motion of the folding kick-stand to eliminate this possibility would be high on my list of priorities.

I consider baby backpacks much better than any of the alternative carrier systems. They scale up better than any front carriers, and this one provides nice features like a built in hydration setup. It's expensive, but I guess having kids is just plain expensive and there's no way around it. Recommended.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Review: EFM 11-22mm STM /4-5.6 IS

When I first bought the EOS M3 for Xiaoqin, I stuck with the prime lenses. First, the EFM 22/2 is very sharp, tiny and light, and the lack of a zoom actually simplifies camera use. It's a great lens. In Japan, however, you're frequently in constrained environments, where the potential to frame the picture by moving your feet is very limited. That calls for a wide angle lens. My preference would have been a 15mm fixed lens, but all the fixed wide-angles for the EOS M system are manual focused, and you really don't want to manual focus while looking at a screen rather than a view-finder.

The EF-M 11-22/4-5.6 STM retails for $400 in the US, but you can get it at a big camera store (Yodabashi had the lowest prices, but Bic Camera is also decent in a pinch) in Tokyo for about $320, sans tax. If you're brave, you can avoid having to go to a store by having Amazon's Japanese site ship to your hotel, but then you'll pay a little bit more, because when they're unable to verify your foreign passport they have to charge tax. The issue with buying from a Japanese camera store is that the warranty is Japan-only, though in practice Canon will typically honor the Japanese purchase. By the way, while you're at it, one of the best deals is you can get a spare battery LP-EP17 while you're at it for about $40, about 30% off from the best available US prices.

Well, the results speak for themselves: one of my favorite pictures from the trip came right out of the lens at 14mm and with it wide open (photograph by Xiaoqin Ma). Note that the lens does vignette, but the modern approach is to let the Lightroom camera profile work its magic and correct for distortion and vignetting. The camera will do it in place if you shoot in JPG mode, but I don't buy high end cameras so I can treat them like a point and shoot.

In combination with the flex-LCD screen on the back of the M3, you can get shots you just can't get on a regular point and shoot or a DSLR (11mm, f/8, ISO 100, fill-flash):

The lens filter ring size is an odd size: 55mm. You can't argue with the IS, which Canon claims to provide 3 stops of hand holdability. Note that at the longest end, at 22mm, f/5.6 is exactly 3 stops from f/2.0, which is what the non-IS prime we have is at. In practice, whenever we went to dinner, I made a habit out of switching over to the prime 22mm. While I missed the IS, stopping the motion of a kid about to do something quickly was more important. Also, when handing over the camera to someone else to shoot a picture, the lack of a zoom actually helped. (Most people are now used to fixed lenses on their smartphones and zooms confuse them)

My dislikes: having to collapse the lens and extend it for shooting. I understand that compactness helps, but the extension makes the lens feel a little flimsy. I would have happily given up a little bit of compactness.

All in all, for the price, you're getting a fancy piece of technology that grants you really wide angles on a compact camera the feels almost too small for your hands. It's not a substitute for an 11mm/2.8 prime (if Canon ever makes one, I'd seriously consider trading up), but the IS isn't a feature to sniff at, and the price is plenty reasonable, especially if you make it to Tokyo and qualify for the tax-free prices. Recommended.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Japan 2016: Thoughts and Conclusions

Japan is very kid friendly. Before we left Xiaoqin was told by people that strollers, etc. were a handful to manage in Japanese cities. We left the stroller behind, and that was a good choice, since it made buses, subways, etc. easy. What I noticed, however, was that every urinal we found in Japan was usable by Bowen. Everywhere we went, people loved both Boen and Bowen. Hotels and restaurants were happy to make accommodations, up to and including putting us in a room with a play pen, or having a nap area right next to the dining table. Our only problem was finding western style baby food (not because Boen couldn't handle Japanese-style baby food, but because the packaging was more convenient for travelers) and diapers, both of which were solved by having very helpful Japanese strangers put in extraordinary efforts on our behalf. So I'd happily travel in Japan with kids.

Bicycle travel really is a gift. I say that after this year's trip, because the contrasts between this year's trip and the 2009 Tour of Hokkaido couldn't be starker. Thinking back upon it, you might even have a hard time believing that it's the same country. My memories of the 2009 tour was gobs of hot springs, including isolated open air public springs where no one else was nearby. My memories from this year's trip is throngs of crowds at temples, except for those few days in Matsumoto. Country hostels, night markets that we happened to ride into, and wild isolated but pretty spots in Hokkaido were certainly missed.

All throughout our Hokkaido trip, I was continually told that "you're seeing the real Japan." At that time, I dismissed it to the similar (false) American creed that people in cities are not real, just the country side is real. What I now realize is that it's not just the country-side: it's that we were venturing out into a Japan that didn't speak English, where we interacted deeply with local people (despite my limited Japanese), and the terrain in a way that's denied to you when you're not traveling by bicycle or on foot.

In both cases, the Japanese are the most polite, ultra-helpful people you'll ever encounter in the world. I'll never forget the woman who took a half hour out of her day to try to help us find baby food in Shinjuku, the busiest train station in the world. She even apologized for it taking a long time! And of course, the brothers who ran Drum Kan who not only drove us to the hot spring and went in with us, but also cooked dinner and then played a Rock concert for us that evening! But as a cyclist you really do get treated differently than other tourists, and you have to interact with locals deeply in a way I never had to on this year's trip.

One of the subtlest thing in the 2009 tour was how we got cleaner and cleaner as the trip progressed. As cyclists we frequently used public baths, and were constantly exposed to how Japanese scrub and clean themselves. And when I say scrub I mean it: I swear by the time a Japanese person is done with their scrub, the entire upper layer of epidermis must have been gone! Over the 2 weeks of our bike tour, we got so inculcated with this that by the time we got home we were scrubbing like the locals. This time, because we mostly stayed at private hotels and AirBnB homes, that effect never happened. I never felt anything other than being a visitor, whereas in 2009, I truly felt like I'd traveled!

I've often said that I don't think I'll ever go back to Japan on a bike tour. The cycling is horrible compared to my beloved Bay Area: the mountain roads have too many tunnels, and views are few and far between: even on this trip, our short stint on the freeway brought better views than our travels in the mountains. The trains aren't bike friendly. Perhaps as my boys get older we'll contemplate some onsen-to-onsen hiking in some of the Japanese national parks, and that might expose them to the more cultural aspects of travel, but if that fails I might reconsider my prohibition against further cycling trips in Japan.

But of course, this time we got to experience a real Japanese Ryokan, and that's really something that's tough to arrange on a bike tour. You can't beat the service. A $800/night Ryokan in Japan provides far better service, food, and ambiance than a $2,000/night Four Seasons in Hawaii. It's expensive, but it's far better value for money, and I'm a cheap-skate of the highest order and would never consider the latter but the consider the former a nice occasional treat.

All in all, if I had the trip to do all over again, I'd spend more time in Kyoto, skip one night in Nara, and spend a day less in Tokyo. But that's all relatively minor. I'd highly recommend Sugimoto and Matsumoto castle, and spend more time on the Philosopher's Path in Kyoto.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Japan 2016: Mitaka

We got up at 6:15am, got everything packed and left the hotel, making the 7:04 Kintetsu Express to Kyoto. At Kyoto station, we bought brunch and boarded the 8:24 Tokyo bound Shinkansen. Then we got into Tokyo station and boarded the local express to Mitaka, where we got off at the wrong station exit so we could use the rest room, and then went back to find the Studio Ghibli museum bus.
Ever since he saw My Neighbor Totoro and accumulated a posse of stuffed Totoros, Bowen's been a big fan of Totoro. The museum, unfortunately, did not let you take pictures inside!
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
Though small, the museum was very well done, including a cat bus play area (which you needed to line up for), a maze, a movie theater (which your entrance ticket doubled as an entry stub), displays and examples of animation, including a stroboscope display that was just amazing. It's well worth the visit, though you probably should have planned better than I did and not pay scalper prices for tickets.
After that, we visited Ryu's AirBnB which were an hour away. Ryu had his house keeper waiting for us so we moved in. Xiaoqin was tasked with buying some items for her friend, so we went to the closest tax-free department store. Wow, women's cosmetics, it turns out are just like cars and houses --- the profit margins are so high that it's worth while for companies to pay commissioned sales people to sell them to you. I did have one last item to get from Japan, which was 64GB Vita memory cards. Those cost $100 in the US, but $75 tax free in Japan, but you have to buy 2 to get the tax deduction, so I bought 2 knowing that I could flip one if necessary.

On our last day, Ryu picked us up from our AirBnB and drove us to the train station where he showed us how to take the SkyTrain to Narita airport. It's a fast 45 minute trip via express train and got us well-rested for the hyper-stressful 9 hour trip back to the USA.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Japan 2016: Nara

We grabbed a bus to Kyoto Station and then went in to buy tickets for the express train. To my dismay, the primary ticket machines were incomprehensible, so we went into the service counter to line up. At the last minute, I saw that there was a JR Rail machine, and tried to use my American credit card to buy a ticket to Nara. That worked great, and we were soon on the express train to Nara. Once there, Google projected an 8 minute walk to the hotel, but biff'd on finding the entrance. Luckily, the entrance wasn't that far. It was too early to checkin but we could leave our luggage at the hotel.
From Japan 2016
Xiaoqin wanted to come to Nara to see Daibutsu, so we walked through the city's parks to the information center, and were then directed along a route that took in more temples, and some reindeer!
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
The temple was very crowded, with hordes of school children, bus loads full of tourists, and tour guides armed with megaphones for both crowds. We walked in slowly and gaped at the huge Buddha statue and various accompaniments before leaving to get ice cream in the heat.
From Japan 2016
After that, everyone else was too exhausted to do more walking, so I set off by myself to explore Nara. My first stop was the Kintetsu station, which was not the same as the JR Nara station. It turned out that in this part of Japan there were two major rail networks with their own stations! I wanted the bullet train from Kyoto, but the Kintetsu station was closer to our hotel, so I had to confirm that (1) yes, I had to buy my tickets from two different companies, and that (2) the 14 minute connection was realistic at Kyoto, because the Kintetsu and JR Shinkansen lines shared a common terminal separated only by a 3 minute walk. Since the Shinkansen ticket was by far the most expensive one, I then walked over to the JR Rail HQ and stood inline for multiple minutes so I could buy reserved seats that would take us to the Studio Ghibli museum on Friday. Along the way, I found a mechanical toy museum, but it was closed on Wednesday.

It rained the next day, but first we had to find more diapers for Boen. This proved to be a surprisingly difficult task, and I eventually enlisted the help of the tourist information counter at the Kintetsu train station. She walked us through 2 more drug stores before finding one! If we'd been searching for adult diapers, it would have been no problem: those were on sale everywhere! I then bought tickets for the Kintetsu rail portion of the next day's trip, and took Bowen to the mechanical toy museum in Nara.
What a great museum that was. It was fully curated, but you were allowed to play with the toys as much as you like. The tops were a lot of fun, and there was even a mini kabuki show/demonstration. Highly recommended even if you don't have kids --- in fact, I was the only person there with a child accomplice!

The day turned out to be a nice quiet day for us because of the rain. We didn't see any sights, but got to live like a local, exploring the local shopping streets, buying take out food, and in general chilling out. This was great, since the next day was an early start, as we had Studio Ghibli tickets for a 12:00pm entry in Tokyo.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Trips Index

The trips index that used to be on the navigation bar on the left of the blog has finally gotten too unwieldy. I'm replacing it with this page (which will be permalinked from the navigation bar) instead.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Japan 2016: Kyoto

The Shinkansen was a great experience, but to my surprise despite it being a mid-day trip we had a hard time getting seats in the non-reserved section. I made a note to make sure we got reserved seats on the trip back to Tokyo. Arriving in Kyoto at 2:45pm, we opted for a taxi to take us to our AirBnB home for the next 3 nights instead of the bus. The place turned out to be hard to find even for the taxi driver to find, but Yumiko, our AirBnB host was kind enough to get on a Skype call with the driver and even meet us outside the bridge in front of her house to guide the driver in the last 50 meters. Given how tricky it was I wasn't unhappy about spending the money.

By the time we were all settled in, it was 4pm, and we opted for a neighborhood stroll:

From Japan 2016
Kyoto is a gorgeous city, with lots of beautiful streets and neighborhoods. In fact, i"d say that my biggest regret about Tokyo was not walking enough. Note that according to my Garmin Vivoactive, during our 2 full days in Kyoto, we walked 9.5 miles and 9 miles respectively, most of that with Boen in the backpack on my shoulders, but I wanted to walk even more and just simply ran out of time (and also didn't want to push Bowen that hard, since the poor kid had to keep up with adults!).
That first night we walked around, explored the neighborhood, and ate dinner out, then bought breakfast for the next day. I had some ambitions about being able to eat out, but as the days progressed realized that with 2 kids, eating out was way more stressful than buying ready-to-eat packages at the supermarket that was literally 150m from the house, and much cheaper to boot!
Our first official visit the next day was at the Kiyomizu Dera, which many many people had recommended to us. The grounds were pretty, but it was crowded despite our early arrival.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
There was also a Studio Ghibli museum nearby, so Bowen got to hug a large number of Totoros. After lunch, I looked in the guidebook and discovered that nearby was a street that was said to be the prettiest street in all of Asia. Going there took us through the Gion district and another temple, but it was indeed pretty.
From Japan 2016
After that, we took a bus to a Ramen shop, and then made it home for dinner after visiting the Imperial Palace and discovering that it required reservations. Our last full day in Kyoto started at Fushima Inari, which would have been a nice climb but with kids, would have taken quite a bit longer than the projected 50 minutes. We got as high as the first place with which to get a nice view of Kyoto and turned around.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
It was indeed pretty, but once again had people, people, and more people everywhere. I think after too many decades of living in North America, I'm just no longer used to such crowded areas. After the shrine, we headed to the Nishiki food market for snacking, and then headed over to Ginkakuji, which was yet another nice looking temple. But that wasn't what was exciting about Ginkakuji: it was the Philosopher's Path that started near that temple and led through the back alleys. That's a nice city walk that surpassed all our expectations, and if I'd known it was that nice I would probably have started the day with it instead of ending our visit to Kyoto with that walk. I would prioritize it over all the temples in the city.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
The walk took us right to the supermarket near our AirBnB, so there we left the path unfinished, to grab dinner and breakfast, and prepare for our trip to Nara the next day.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Japan 2016: Matsumoto

After our customary early breakfast, we checked out and proceeded to walk to the bus stop, which would take us to a relatively small JR train station. When you're traveling with luggage, buses are actually easier than subways as you don't have to lift the luggage up and down stairs. The bus stop was also much closer than the subway station, and provided a direct connection to a JR station. Once there, I bought the train tickets for Matsumoto from a person at the single counter available there (it was a small station), and we got onto the next train for the Shinjuku station. We changed there to catch a local express train, but Xiaoqin missed the train! Fortunately, the Tokyo express train came every 5 minutes, so she simply boarded the next one and then we got onto the long distance train together with almost an hour to spare, thanks to our being super early to begin with.

Once in Matsumoto, I walked over to the rental car company with my international driver's license to pick up a rental van (with car seats), and then picked up everyone else at the train station and then drove to Matsumoto castle.

From Japan 2016

Matsumoto wasn't at peak display either, but it was much closer to the peak than Tokyo was. Matsumoto castle itself provided a beautiful backdrop for the viewing, and we got a chance to enter the castle and examine both historical artifacts, and see what it was like in an ancient Japanese castle first hand.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
The ticket for the castle also included a tour of the city museum, which wasn't nearly as impressive, but still worth a visit, given how close it was. Our stay that night was at Sugimoto Ryokan, a high end traditional luxury (read expensive) Ryokan whose service and hospitality was unmatched by any Western hotel I'd ever stayed at. For instance, the minute we parked our car in the parking lot, they'd jumped out and took our bags from us and delivered the bags into the room, even before we'd even checked in. When Bowen saw that we had gi and he didn't, the Ryokan provided him with a gi:
From Japan 2016
The room was huge, the hot springs (real hot springs!) had both indoor and outdoor rooms, and the food was nothing short of fabulous.
From Japan 2016
My Japanese instructor back in college had raved about Basashi (horse sashimi, and yes, that means it's raw!), but this was my first time trying it and wow, it was yummy! I ate everything the rest of my family couldn't finish, which unfortunately still left me quite hungry. The reason for this was obvious in hindsight: all the days in Japan, I was carrying Boen (23 pounds) on a Deuter Kid Comfort backpack (8 pounds) that was also loaded with baby food and diapers. That was at least a 35 pound load, and on some days closer to 40 pounds. Walking about 8-12 miles a day with a 35 pound load would leave me in a constant state of hunger not unlike my condition during the 2009 bike tour.
We reluctantly left Sugimoto the next day to drive towards the Shinhotaka Ropeway. On the way there, we took a detour to visit Shirahone-Onsen. The milky white character of these hot springs are apparently famous, but the place was exceedingly expensive so we didn't stay.
From Japan 2016
Not realizing that Shirahone-Onsen was on a detour, we found a tourist information center and booked a Ryokan for the night. We ended up back on the road to Shinhotaka Ropeway and being surprised that we'd seen it before! Well, we'd already paid a deposit, so we gritted our teeth, drove the rest of the way, and went up the ropeway, which did grant us nice views of the Japanese Alps.
From Japan 2016

We hiked around near the top of the ropeway, but it was mid-Spring, and there really wasn't that much hiking you could do without making an overnight trip out of it. The Ryokan we stayed that night was half the price of Sugimoto, and so not nearly as nice. But they nevertheless gave us decent food. The next day, it was cool and windy, and the hiking wasn't going to be good anyway, so we aimed to visit Obuse. On the way, however, we found a little village with cherry blossoms in full bloom!
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
That alone made the cost of the rental car worthwhile. Japanese mountain roads suck compared to European or North American ones. They're full of tunnels so you can't see any scenery, they're narrow, with no interesting views whatsoever. So I was pleasantly surprised to discover nice views from the Japanese freeways (well, toll-ways).
At Obuse, we visited the Hokusai museum as well as the Kozan Takai musuem. Both museums are small (under 90 minutes each if you don't rush), and well worth the visit. We tried some chest nut specialty food which Obuse was famous for, and then I set about looking for lodging on my smartphone. Due to a Tripadvisor app screw up, I ended up searching on and found a place in the Yudanaka Onsen area. Once I read in the guidebook that this was where the opening sequence of one of my favorite movies Baraka was filmed, I was sold!
Finding Yudanaka Onsen was easy. Finding the hotel we'd booked online wasn't. But we did eventually find it after some help, and then settled in. Yudanaka still had plenty of cherry blossoms in bloom, so in the evening before dinner we did a cherry blossom walk.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
I also did laundry in the most sophisticated coin operated laundromat I'd ever seen: each single machine could wash, rinse, spin, and dry your clothes in fully automated fashion, without you having to pour in detergent, etc. It was super expensive ($10 per load), but you could walk away and then come back in an hour without having to do anything.
From Japan 2016
The next morning, we drove the precarious single-lane road up to the Monkey Park. In Chinese, the park's name was: "Hell Valley" park. We had a limited time to visit the park as I had to drive back to Matsumoto that day, return the car, and then we all had to pile into a bus that would take us to the night's stay, but the trip was worth it, as we got to see the snow monkeys bathing in the pool, the scene which Baraka had made famous.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
We then made the drive back to Matsumoto, where I returned the car with a minimum of fuss and we found ourselves boarding the bus for ougatou. Set high in the mountains at 6000' feet, Ougatou was billed by the guidebook as a hotel above the clouds. Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate and it was either clear or raining, so we didn't get the experience. Still, for the price, the service was excellent, even if the views were disappointing.
From Japan 2016
From Japan 2016
We did a bit of hiking, but it was cleary not the best season for it. Summer, Fall, or Winter would be preferable to Spring for this. We left the next day in the rain, heading back to Matsumoto for the train to Kyoto.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Japan 2016: Tokyo

Traveling with family is much different and tougher than traveling alone (or with a partner) as an adult. For instance, if you're jet-lagged as an adult, you can take sleeping pills, or worse comes to worse, wake up at 3am and go walk around a foreign city, which can be fun all by itself. You're not going to be able to do that with a toddler and infant in tow.

With that in mind, I booked a 3 night stay at Homeikan in Tokyo, hoping that it 3 days would be sufficient to get over baby jet-lag. (Bowen's baby jet-lag during the 2012 trip was a horrifying experience that I still remember today) In a similar vein, I paid one of our AirBnB hosts, Ryu, to pick us up from the airport in a mini-van. After a 9 hour flight, I expected everyone to be stressed and I did not want to deal with navigating the train system and busy streets immediately after the flight. The flight was indeed stressful for Boen, so it was a relief to see Ryu holding up a sign for our party when we exited the customs and immigration terminal.

From Japan 2016
The trip to Homeikan took a good 2 hours by car which was much longer than it would have by train (which would have been an hour or so), mostly because of unusually poor traffic conditions. On the other hand, we could see Tokyo first hand, including cyclists without helmets, the Skytree, and ask questions of Ryu. Bowen whined a lot about having no water to drink, but that would have been true on the train as well. Once settled in the hotel, we went out for a quick dinner, got a quick bath, and then went to sleep as late as we could.

Going from California to Japan was the easy direction, but we still all woke up around 5:00am, and by the time breakfast came, we were hungry. 

From Japan 2016

We then went to Ueno park, mostly because it was close. We knew from reports that the Cherry Blossom season was over. But what was left was remarkably good, and still quite pretty:
From Japan 2016
What was remarkable was that whenever the wind blew, we'd get cherry blossoms coming down on us from the trees. We would later be told that this was 花吹雪, Hana Fubuki.

After that we went to the Nishiki market for lunch. The wait was over an hour, and we later found out that this was normal! The only time to go when it wouldn't be crowded would be in the morning, right after breakfast. Well, I wasn't about to do that since the Ryokan did feed us quite well.
From Japan 2016

Over-ambitious by this point, we went to Akhibahara, but discovered that all the big shops that would do tax-free discounting required you to bring your passport, and we'd left ours safely at the hotel. Everyone was tired by now, so we headed back to Homeikan. Poor Bowen fell asleep waiting for his ramen dinner!
From Japan 2016
The little guy had walked all over Tokyo with us (I was carrying his little brother in the backpack, so I couldn't carry him), and according to my watch, we'd walked 10 miles in total. No wonder he was tired.

Ask anyone what the best antidote for jet-lag was, and you'll hear that sunlight and exercise are the best. We didn't get a huge amount of sunlight, but judging by my hips and shoulders, we did get quite a bit of exercise. So rather than a long walk through a park, we took the subway to the Tokyo Skytree.
From Japan 2016
From there, you got nice panoramic views of Tokyo, but unfortunately, it wasn't the clearest of days so we couldn't see Mt. Fuji.
From Japan 2016
We had lunch in the area at a famous beef tongue shop, visited the Studio Ghibli store, and then went to Shinjuku, where the intention was to look at the street scene. Instead, we got side-tracked into buying baby food. We got help from a very nice lady, and ended up at a department store. Having brought my passport, I paid a visit to Yodabashi Camera, and purchased an EF-M 11-22/4-5.6 STM IS for the EOS M3, as well as a spare battery. As a foreigner on a short visit, camera equipment is one of the few things that are cheaper in Tokyo than they would be in the USA, though even in those cases you should still do some comparison shopping in advance.

Exhausted, we went back to the hotel early and went to bed early, as we had a train to catch the next morning to Matsumoto.