29.9.07

Ambivalence


Mountains from the Great Wall
Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
The Great Wall was touristy, and dirty, and buggy, and hot. But this view made it all worth it.

We drove through the countryside for a while on our way back to Beijing. The land is -- or so it seems -- incredibly fertile and it is cultivated intensively. I saw enormous squashes hanging from trellises, huge pumpkins growing in backyard gardens, peaches the size of grapefruits, apple trees loaded with fruit, endless bushels of gourds, and enormous ears of corn in piles on the road. "For the pigs," I was told.

I also saw field laborers sleeping in tents, and hotels that did not have plumbing. The tap water here, as everywhere in China, is not potable. There were factories next to corn fields next to perfectly square lakes where people were fishing. At many attractions, you could get a discount for having a "deformity". It seemed like just about everyone in Beijing was coughing, sniffling, sneezing. A national investment in spittoons would not go amiss. I don't even want to talk about the airport, where it is necessary, upon arrival, to join a crowd of hundreds of other nervous travelers trying to squeeze through a single entryway -- this is "customs" -- before getting to the airline check-in counters. You do this while you are still in view of the road, where cars and trucks are pulling up all the time. Naturally, no one's been checked for weapons or explosives...


The Great Wall of China


The Great Wall of China
Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Hot, crowded, dirty, steep, and swarming with gnats.

Or You Could Just Take the Cable Car

I snapped this one before I saw the sign: PICTURES OF THE CAMEL ARE NOT FREE.

Dolls for Sale

This was one of the prettiest displays.

The vendors all knew the same English phrases, which they repeated over and over.

"Hello!"
"Remember you!"
"Dollar!"

This soundscape was so strange, like something out of a bad 50s film about the Pacific theater of WWII. It was impossible to really take in the enormity of the Wall as an engineering feat or a piece of history, with all the shouting and huckstering. But, in a way, that was the truth of the experience -- even the Great Wall is as commodifiable as anything else.

At the Great Wall


Great Wall vendor stalls
Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
We'd been told that the part of the Great Wall we visited, Mutianyu, was less touristy than other places.

Well, it was still pretty touristy. Lots of vendors hawking various souvenirs, including plenty of communist kitsch. Ah, the contradictions of late capitalism.

This bit of the walk up the Great Wall took us up a slope to a cable car, which went all the way up the mountain. The walk was steep and promised to get steeper.

Just after I took this shot, a group of guys came running down the path bearing a man on a stretcher who'd apparently fallen down the Wall. He was bleeding quite a bit from the head.

After he passed, the crowd was quiet for a bit as everyone reconsidered their plans for the day.

An American behind me said, "Be careful..."

Unscheduled Stop

When we decided to visit the Great Wall, we hired a guide and a driver for the trip, which was supposed to go from the hotel to the Great Wall at Mutianyu and back again.

Like most things in Beijing, this trip was full of surprises. Like the unscheduled stop at the cloisonné factory in Huairou, a place whose primary claim to fame is that it is the suburb of Beijing with the least air pollution.

Now, cloisonné production is not exactly environmentally neutral and safe. The process involves heat, adhesives, and chemicals. The workers we saw were not using masks, gloves, or eye protection. When I asked about the glue they used to attach copper strips to the copper vessels that would eventually become vases, I was told that the glue was made from an herb of some kind.

We were not allowed to see the plating part of the process. Given the messiness and hazards of plating, I was not too surprised.

23.9.07

Beijing Delicious

From the map, it looked like the Forbidden City was only five or six blocks away.

What we didn't understand is that those are BEIJING blocks, which go on until you drop dead or reach the Mongolian steppes, whichever happens first.

We met a number of interesting people on our long hike. Most were young, eager to explain that they had been to university in the United States (the U of Chicago is a favorite), and even more eager to take us on guided tours of the city. We declined these offers, for obvious reasons. More than one person approached us crying, "I am a teacher!" Another woman approached us several times, apparently forgetting that she'd already told us her story and made her pitch. She was surprised when I said, "Hello, Grace! It is nice to see you again, on this corner where you introduced yourself last time! We must hurry along now."

Everyone seems to be running some kind of ... enterprise. People do hustle here. The rule for getting through doorways and other tight spaces is the person with the biggest muscles goes first. Traffic signals are honored more in the breach. I am getting used to it.

On our hike, we discovered a hutong, or alley, where we were befriended by a woman who explained to us that the street itself was four hundred years old before urging us to visit her art gallery at one end of a deserted, though rather picturesque, courtyard. Again, we had to decline, as we were on our way to the Forbidden City. She told us it was not open; evidently she had been misinformed. At any rate, the street she so helpfully dated for us certainly looked old enough, and narrow, and very traditional, with men sitting outside shops on little stools, smoking and chatting and sipping drinks.

There were fruit and vegetable stands and hot food stands where all sorts of delicacies were on offer -- buns, roast meat on skewers, thin fried pancakes. All of it looked very delicious, but not compatible, alas, with the Wonky Gallbladder Diet.

Starbucks, Ritan Lu, Beijing


Starbucks, Ritan Lu, Beijing
Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Here is what they have in Beijing: Starbucks. Everywhere. Including right in your face as you pass through immigration at the airport.

Starbucks had even set up shop in the Forbidden City -- but this, apparently, was too much. Now there is a government-sponsored tea house in the same spot instead.

The prices are much the same as in New York, Boston, etc. If you want a latte and a pastry, it will set you back about six dollars or 50 yuan.

Bear in mind that most Chinese make about two dollars a day. In the cities, a clerical worker makes about 50 dollars a week, and that is a good living.

I have lots of good pictures and stories from Beijing that do not involve multinational corporations. But the Starbucks thing really got to me. Stay tuned.

21.9.07

Playing Princess


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
"Want to play 'princess' with me?"

"Princess" is a dreadful game in which two plastic Disney Princesses say mean things to each other, do handstands, and change into different dresses. It is not so much a game as a ritual. Jane reserves the right to make all the rules, to change those rules when she likes, and to make up all the dialogue.

"Okay," I say.

She hands me Sleeping Beauty. "Now I am Cinderella, and you are Sleeping Beauty."

"Yes. I think Sleeping Beauty needs some coffee to wake up."

"NO! You say..." And Jane tells me what to say.

"Jane," I say, "if you are always telling me what to say, playing 'princess' is not very much fun."

She looks at me blankly.

"For me," I clarify. "Not much fun for me."

"But you are supposed to say..." And I get the same instructions again.

"Sleeping Beauty is sitting down," I say. "She is resisting your orders. I can't make her do anything."

"What?!"

"That's right. This princess is so stubborn, I can't believe it."

"What?!"

"She says she is engaging in a form of nonviolent protest against a despotic regime."

"Tell her to say..."

I Hear You

Dooce took her kid to San Francisco and it was not a lot of fun:

"Everything that they tell you about the love you'll have for your child is true, but there's all this other stuff that is true, too, stuff that you're afraid to talk about, stuff that you carry around and try to hide. Stuff like resentment and fear and anxiety and longing."

We're having a good time here in Beijing. But I've been having these feelings, too. One of the things I wanted to do on this trip was confront this stuff -- figure out why I sometimes feel this way, and what it is all about. Travel is good for this kind of exploration-- I am alone with Jane for long stretches and without babysitting options so it's critical that I just learn to deal.

One thing that's occurred to me: I love Jane for her innocence and beauty (I admit it). I also love watching her in new situations, because I feel like I am discovering who she is. But she is not only some kind of sui generis entity. She needs to learn things, important things about how to be with other people and how to give and take. A certain, uh, reciprocity is missing from our relationship. I am starting to think that it is my job to help her learn this.

I suspect lots of parents feel the anger and resentment Dooce mentions. Mostly no one talks about it. Our ideas about motherhood and childhood do not include this discourse, or if they do, it's only in the context of illness, like postnatal depression or valium for stressed-out mothers or ritalin for off-the-wall kids.

Which is what they all are, sometimes.

Speaking of walls -- the Great Wall is on the agenda for tomorrow.

19.9.07

She's Big in Beijing


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Our first day in Beijing was mostly lost to travel and catching up on the sleep we lost as a result of our early flight out of Tokyo.

Today we got up, visited the local Starbucks out of curiosity and the crying need for really big cups of coffee, and then walked to the Forbidden City, about a mile away.

Everywhere, we were greeted by smiles and cries of "piaoliang" (pretty). Jane stuns them all when she says "xie xie ni" (thank you) and addresses people using (mostly) the right honorifics. People ask how does she know Chinese. This is our secret: Chinese for Children. Naturally, MJ and I have been watching it as well, and as a result we can say things like "Hello, Grandma" and "That is my doll" in flawless kiddie Chinese. So useful, especially for communicating things like "I have a disease that does not permit me to eat fried food, eggs or red meat, I hope your chef can accommodate me." Or even, "Ah, forget it, I'll just have the soup."

In the Forbidden City, a group of girls were so smitten they asked to be photographed with Jane. We took a picture of them, too.


New kanji we've learned: airport, airline, China, Beijing.

Just Mots

Can now recognize kanji for "entrance," "exit," "parking lot," and "coffee," and for the subway stops "Takeshiba," "Shiodome," and "Odaiba." From this you get an idea of what our priorities are.

E. wrote our names for us in katakana script.

kawa = river
nami = wave (thus, tsunami; o-nami is a "man" wave or a big wave; there is a special kanji for smaller waves, "woman waves")
matsu = pine

Also -- near the mall, there's a place where you can visit with a roomful of cats for an hour if you want. It's like a cat rental place. Rent-a-kitty.

Mots & Choses & Ten Little Toes

At breakfast in Expensive Hotel, Japan:

J: What's a category?
D: It's an imaginary box to put things in.
MJ (laughs): Not bad for 7 AM!

Manga Collage


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
In Kanda.

This Is More Like It


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Back in Kanda, after lunch with our friend N., who took us to a great organic restaurant called Mother's.

The book displays are astonishing -- the piles are high and very precarious!

So Are the Spiders


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
The Emperor's spider. We wandered through a grove full of these. Creepy.

The Carp Are Large


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
The Emperor's carp pond.

No Trespassing


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
The Emperor's Keep Out sign. A good set of kanji to learn.

Pretty


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
A pretty walk, belonging to the Emperor. Husband and child, not belonging to the Emperor.

Blossoms


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Blossoms, belonging to the Emperor.

Not a Stinkhorn


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Wood fungus, belonging to the Emperor. We have tree stumps in our yard too, but only disgusting stinkhorns grow on them.

Light Fixture


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
A beautiful lamp, belonging to the Emperor.

Old & New & MJ


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
A bit of the ultramodern Tokyo skyline is visible behind the roof of the Emperor's old-fashioned guard house.

Imperial Garden - Entrance


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
It was hot, we were hours from lunch, and Jane was floppy. So after a quick trip to a real Japanese grocery store where we were delighted to discover such delicacies as Hello Kitty cookies, little mango-flavored jello snacks that come individually wrapped in plastic, and a bewildering variety of rice crackers, we hightailed it out of sleepy Kanda, and headed for the Imperial Gardens.

Emphatic


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Really!!!!! Don't worry!!!! In Kanda.

The Fox & The Rabbit -- Kanda


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Seen on the street in Kanda. The rabbit looks like it better watch out.

Morning in Jimbocho


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
We arrived too early -- the bookstores weren't going to open until 10:30 or so, and since it was Honor Your Elders Day, a national holiday, things were even quieter. Here's a typical street in Kanda, in a quiet moment.

Kanda, Jimbocho, and the Imperial Gardens -- Day 5


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
We wandered around Jimbocho for a while, looking for Kanda, the used books district. Snapped this one after we stopped for coffee.

Not So Serious


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Looking up, just behind the plaque -- it's a bathing suit contest! Here are the contestants, a dozen or attractive young women in bikinis and four-inch heels, and the mob of photographers that was following them around.

Philosophy of Water


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Outside the museum, Y. kindly translated this plaque for me. It is a statement from the museum's founder on the "Six Principles of Water."

Maritime History Museum, Odaiba -- Day 4


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Our friends took us to Odaiba's Maritime History Museum, a ship-shaped (!) building just a short walk from Expensive Hotel. The kids had a great time playing with the interactive exhibits, most of which featured models of ships' controls and their correlated propellers and engines. Our two girls were quite a sight, piloting imaginary ships while their Hello Kitty and Aristocat handbags dangled from their elbows. But instead of a picture of that (E. probably doesn't want her daughter's picture on the internet, and I understand) here is a photo of the enormous old-fashioned propulsion engine that took up most of the main hall of the museum.

17.9.07

Day 4 -- New Friends


friends
Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Just a short post & pic, from yesterday's outing with E., Y., and A., Jane's new big-girl friend (she is all of six). It seems that even little girls who don't speak the same language can rapidly find common ground over many things regardless of the language barrier. And these are truly vital things, like the color pink, good shoes, and the importance of the right handbag.


15.9.07

Hello Kitty Mikoshi


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
We didn't bow to it or anything, but when we saw it, we understood that the $300+ dollars we spent at Hello Kitty Land did not represent our capitulation to Sanrio's marketing but were, in fact, a sacred offering.

Big Biru


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
This is what you need when your child is totally megamawaru. Thankfully the Sanrio people understand, and are happy to oblige you in the cafeteria.

We also had our first experience (mine and Jane's) with squat toilets. About which, perhaps, the less said, the better.

Or, In a Word


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
The same feeling, in Japanese.

I LOVE THIS PLACE


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Jet-lagged, her blood sugar dropping fast, and completely overstimulated.

Konnichiwa Kitty Has Wheels


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Of course she does!

See that rose? It cost 5 dollars. A girl was selling them outside the HKHouse. Jane walked up to her and started to make faces that said, "I am so cute, please give me a flower."

The girl very cutely made faces back to Jane that said, "You are so very cute, but you really must pay 5 dollars for this flower."

Jane, undaunted, continued with her faces. "Oh but I am so cute, how can you say no to me?"

The girl, who was clearly accustomed to this sort of thing, made additional faces. "Oh, you are so cute, and I hate to say no, but you really must give me money. Did I mention how cute you are?"

Eventually we had no choice but to fork over the dough. Well done, Jane!

Chez Hello Kitty


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
What words are there for this? It was just like in the picture, only bigger and somehow pinker. It looked edible.

Inside, you could wander through Hello Kitty's rooms and paw through her belongings. On the nighttable were various interior design books whose titles I should have written down. (They were mostly of the "shabby chic" variety.) On the bookshelf, there was a nice library of English literature and books about the English language, including the OED and a dictionary of "early English."

Could it be that Hello Kitty = Englishness, through the eyes of the Japanese?

A lot of it was twee, definitely...

Very Bad Batsumaru


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
I laughed out loud.

On the Boat


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Disney's "It's A Small World" is going to be a let-down after this.

Bad Batsumaru


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Here he is, my favorite Sanrio character, about to jump out from behind a rock and ambush us on our boat ride through the Sanrio interior.

Designers Go Crazy


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
As theme parks go, Hello Kitty Land is on the small side -- one central area surrounded by a handful of ancillary rooms containing various rides and attractions. Upstairs, there's a cafeteria and shops, including one shop for "students and ladies" where, despite myself, I made several purchases. Needless to say, there are opportunities to spend money at every turn.

Despite its small size, every detail in Hello Kitty Land has been lovingly worked over, maximally cute and perfect. The main hall has a steampunk vibe with a weird northern European aspect -- one of the rooms off to the side is "Marchenland," and there is much ado about fairies.

One thing we notice right away: There are no Americans here. We see lots of Japanese families, and also Japanese teenagers and young adults dressed to kill in the latest goth cosplay get-ups.

Fanfare, Please


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
After a ride on the monorail, a quick change at Shiodome, an interminable wait for the right train at Shinjuku, and a very long ride through the provinces of southwest Tokyo, we arrived at the land of Hellish Kitty.

On the way, I learned the kanji for "station" and "Shiodome," as well as the character that sounds like "dai." I don't know why these things stick among the thousands of words I see. MJ shows me that the kanji for station includes a stylized horse, mane, tail, feet and all.

An Important Piece of Jane's Education


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
MJ looks out the window. "There's Tokyo beach. I mean, 'beach.'" And makes the air quotes sign.

"What does that mean?" Jane asks, and makes the air quotes sign.

"Irony," MJ says.

Day 3 -- Konnichiwa Kitty


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Today we made the trek out to Tama City Center, home of Sanrio Puroland, the theme park devoted to all things Hello Kitty.

The trip was ill-advised. But we didn't know it at the beginning.

Except, we did.

"This is crazy," MJ said. "We're in a huge city we don't know at all, we don't speak the language, we can't read the signs, and we need to figure out the subway AND the local commuter rail in order to make this trip."

"Agreed, it is crazy. Especially since neither of us has any interest at all in Hello Kitty."

But: Jane. Who has had an obsession with the insipid squeaky feline with the dumb bow pretty much since birth.

How could we not go?

One, Two, Itchy Knee

A little boy is marching around the hotel lobby with his father. Every time he takes a step he says "Ichi ni, ichi ni" -- "one, two, one, two."

At 3 am, Jane is marching around the room in her slippers. "Itchy knee, itchy knee. One, two, I have an itchy knee."

Metaphor

It is 3 am. Once again, we are singing the ballad of the jetlagged gaijin. This time we have peanuts and cup miso (delicious). Jane looks out the window at the lights and skyscrapers of central Tokyo.

"Tokyo," she says, "is a boat that goes everywhere."

14.9.07

The Ride


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
We bought our ticket and were ushered onto a lemon-yellow car. But the inside! Was pink! Like bubble gum! It was like riding in a blow-pop.

I felt a little sick, to be honest. The Odaiba ferris wheel may or may not be the highest in the world -- but it was definitely...high.

Closer


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
The Odaiba Ferris Wheel up close. According to the recording that played while we were riding, it is the tallest ferris wheel in the world. (But, surely, the London Eye comes close?)

Odaiba Ferris Wheel


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
A distant shot of the Odaiba Ferris Wheel. We had just finished lunch at a Korean restaurant that we stumbled into by accident because we had been completely befuddled by the ticketing process at the Mysterious Ramen Noodle Theme Park. Jane had refused to eat, being jet-lagged and cranky, but perked up later when we got her a strawberry ice-cream sundae at Mou Mou. (For some reason, although Japanese cuisine is almost entirely free of gallbladder-pain-inducing butterfat, soft ice cream is very popular.) Thus fortified, Jane and I set out for a walk, leaving MJ to his meeting. After watching several planes make the hair-raising turn over Tokyo Bay toward Narita the other airport near Tokyo, Jane asked to ride the ferris wheel, which was visible in the distance.

She was tired, and cranky, and I thought, This can't be a good idea. But we set off anyway, walking through a pretty park filled with wildflowers, beetles making strange electrical noises and trees full of ripe plums. It was a long, hot walk but Jane didn't mind -- there was too much to look at.

Fish Mural


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Spotted this on our way toward the inner marke, which was a little too forbidding for us today - gawkers aren't welcome and definitely not with children. But we'll come back.

Ceramics


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
A ceramics stall in Tsukiji -- black, white, celadon, turquoise, goldenrod, taupe...

Mystery


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Stairways like this one can be found behind many of the outer market's stalls. I wonder where they go, whether there are offices up there, or apartments... What would it be like, to come home every day, winding your way through the thronging maze of the outer market, your briefcase on one shoulder, and scoot up this staircase to a tiny room, a pot of tea?

I could love living in Tsukiji...although I read in Theodore Bestor's anthropological study of the market, Tsukiji, that people don't really live here anymore.

A Relatively Quiet Moment


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
In Tsukiji's outer market.

Bright


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Originally uploaded by quiet.eye.
Yellow chrysanthemums nestled among the produce...