Audio Mixing, Big Class D Amps, and Light Shows

July 21, 2020

Strap in, big post.

(If you just want to quickly see the project working, click here)

I’m fascinated by audio electronics. Arthur C. Clarke’s quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” really does become relevant when developing analog circuits. While digital circuits can also be challenging at times, their trouble-shooting is generally constrained to “working, or not working.” Analog circuits, especially audio circuits, are crafted out of components that exploit the fundamental physical properties of various materials and are entirely dictated by often complicated mathematics and theories. You are at the mercy of seemingly arcane and arbitrary phenomena that permeate every facet of our existence. I often stop and marvel at the madness happening on my workbench when working with analog circuits. Magnets, coils, resistors, capacitors, amplifiers – a big jumble of crazy things all working together, doing their little parts applying their unique properties to condition signals suitable for other components or the end user. It’s all endlessly fascinating to me, and I thought I’d share my appreciation for those who also feel the same way.

I write this article today to share with you a new audio project I’ve been working on, as well as give some insight into the things I learned along the way. I’ve never received a formal education in electronics engineering, so I feel as though my naive perspective may in-fact be of use to those who are also at my level of understanding. In my opinion, the most of the difficulty in designing anything is going into the project without knowing of the names and techniques used by your not only your contemporaries, but the great minds from a century ago. Once you have a searchable term that you can plop into Google, the mysteries quickly solve themselves and the fog begins to clear. Also, as I’ve found, fundamental concepts that are simple in theory may take a little bit of time to wrap your head around as prerequisite knowledge is often assumed, even though the reader may not have those building blocks under their belt yet. Hopefully, I can convey what I learned in a way that makes sense to novices, even though what I will be talking about is fairly complicated.

Anyways, enough rambling, let’s get to the project…

Boombox Mascot

This project began when I was contacted by a person I worked with previously. They are starting up their own children’s TV/web show and wanted to create a custom “boombox character” with lights, speakers (duh), and a screen acting as their “face.” Admittedly, this did sound a bit silly to me at first, but truthfully, I’ve grown very fond of this project. At this stage in the game, I’ve only developed the audio and light-show portion of the character, but I feel that it is by far the most fascinating aspect of the project. You won’t see much, or any of the character itself in this post, simply the audio and lighting electronics, but I digress.

I didn’t have much to go on specification-wise. All I knew is that I’d require a mixing circuit to handle multiple audio inputs, a power amplifier to drive some 5″ speakers, and a way to sample the audio stream to create a reactive light show. Board and component size was not really an issue as the custom enclosure will be fairly large.

That ‘specification’ above was all I really had to work with, so I decided that my first task was to select some of the main components, like the speakers, so I could have some solid numbers to work with.

Here are the things I thought about before I began:

  • The boombox was going to be in stereo.
  • There will be four speakers in total to drive. Two tweeters handle the high frequencies, two mid-range speakers to handle just about everything else. All speakers will be 8 ohms to keep things simple.
  • No subwoofer on this design, but keep one in mind while designing just in case you’d like to add one later.
  • The amplifier had to be powerful enough to drive my speakers with a reasonable volume level, but since the speaker specification was fairly nebulous at the time, I needed to choose an amp that had the power head-room to support more, or bigger speakers, just in case the project changed over time.
  • I wanted the amp to be fairly efficient, as dealing with a ton of heat would just be another engineering hurdle.
  • This is not a “critical listening” device, meaning audio quality does not need to be absolutely pristine. Subjectively sounding good is the goal. Objectively sounding good is something that I’ll leave to the audio engineering professionals.
  • I needed a way to control addressable LEDs. I think a Teensy board should be more than enough to handle that while simultaneously sampling the audio stream to perform some neat tricks, like fast-Fourier transformations or VU metering.

With those ideas in mind, I began breadboarding.

Getting an Early Feel for Things

I’ve worked with audio stuff before, of course, so I had a rudimentary idea of what I was doing, but I have never worked on audio circuits with this much power behind it before. 5″ speakers are still fairly big components and they can take a ton of power to drive correctly. Before I committed to purchasing any big speakers, though, I decided to make a few lower-powered prototypes with some smaller, but still fairly beefy speakers. I picked up a couple of 2 inch, 5 watt, 4 ohm speakers just to test with and began developing some breadboard circuits.

Picking a Power Amplifier

Picking an amplifier class was also on my mind at this time. For those who don’t know, there are several audio amplifier classes, each with their own unique properties. Some of the most common are Class A, Class B, Class AB, and Class D. There are others, but I’ll quickly go over these ones.

Class A amps are usually found in systems where quality is more important than efficiency. Therefore, they have a tendency to consume quite a bit of power and get really hot. Class B amplifiers were designed to improve efficiency at the expense of some potential distortion issues at the signal’s “zero-crossing” (the point where the audio signal nears 0V).

As a means to combine the improved efficiency of Class B amps and the minimal distortion of the Class A amp, the class AB amplifier was invented. Class AB amplifiers are extremely common and provide a good middle-ground between A and B class amps. Unfortunately, at higher powers, Class AB amplifiers still have a tendency to get really hot and require beefy heat sinking.

Finally, there’s Class D amplifiers. Class D amplifiers are extremely efficient. Like… extremely extremely efficient, to the point where it kind of feels like cheating the laws of physics a bit. Class D amplifiers work on the principle of filtered high-frequency pulse-width modulation driven transistors, similar to a how a switch-mode power supply boosts up voltages, but these devices are for audio signals. I’ll explain more in detail in just a bit since there’s a bit of technical jargon there. The switching frequencies at which these amps operate at are well above the range of human hearing and are therefore inaudible should the circuit be designed correctly. The upshot of this design is a versatile amplifier capable of extremely high power levels with unbelievably low waste heat. Class D amps can theoretically reach 100% efficiency, though, in the real world, you’ll usually see them near the 85-95% range. Their downside? Due to their switch-mode design, Class D amps have caught a bit of a bad wrap from the high-fidelity crowd. With a Class D amp, you are essentially filtering and ‘averaging*’ the voltage of a bunch of sharp square waveforms, so the output waveform will never be absolutely pristine. But… to be totally honest, the output quality is good enough to the point where you’d be really hard pressed to hear the difference if your circuit is designed correctly. Class D amps, as we’ll discover, are also fairly picky and can be difficult to keep stable. Effective Class D designs truly are fantastic though, and their versatility and efficiency is why they’re becoming the de facto amplifier component for many new products.

*Not exactly averaging per se, but you get the idea.

I mentioned pulse-width modulation in the paragraph above. I’d like to clarify a bit on the subject just in case the reader has never heard of it before.

Basically, PWM is a technique where you approximate voltages with a digital circuit using on-time, and off-time. Remember, a digital device can only produce two discrete voltage levels, HIGH, and LOW. There is no “in-between.” Those “in-between” voltages are important for analog signals, like audio, as those distinct voltages are where the information is. Analog in this context simply means “no discrete steps. Infinite resolution between points.” The higher the voltage, the more the electromagnet in the speaker cone repels the permanent magnet in the speaker base, moving some air, which we perceive as sound, and vice versa for negative voltages. With PWM, we can allow digital devices to approximate those vitally important “in-between” voltages and create an analog signal.

PWM creates a series of square waves, meaning the voltage level of the wave goes to it’s maximum point and minimum point (HIGH and LOW), with no voltage levels in between. By changing the ratio of HIGH time to LOW time, we adjust what is known as the “duty cycle.” The more time the PWM signal spends at the HIGH voltage, the higher the average voltage will be. The approximate DC voltage can be calculated simply by using D*V (D = Duty Cycle, V = peak voltage, AKA what ever our HIGH level is).

If our peak voltage is 12 volts, and our duty cycle is 50%, we would calculate the average voltage to be: 12*0.5 = 6V.

If our peak voltage is 12 volts, and our duty cycle is 14%, we would calculate the average voltage to be: 12*0.14 = 1.68V.

If our peak voltage is 12 volts, and our duty cycle is 80%, we would calculate the average voltage to be: 12*0.8 = 9.6V.

You see, by adjusting the duty cycle, we can achieve a synthetic analog voltage using only digital signals.

Once we achieve the voltage we’re looking for, we can filter the square-wave to remove any harsh high-frequency signal edges that may make it into our synthetic analog stream. Think of the filter circuitry as some sandpaper to smooth out the rough edges of our signal. PWM can be found in just about everything “adjustable” nowadays, from your light dimmer, to an electric car’s speed controller, to synthesizers. If you ever hear a weird high frequency buzzing coming lights or motors, that is probably the PWM duty cycle you’re hearing!

An example of PWM (labeled PDM). Notice how the longer periods of HIGH voltages on the blue square wave correlates to a higher voltage on the green analog wave while longer periods of LOW voltages drop the green wave down. Image source.

Okay, we get it. Class D is Pretty Neat-o

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m going with a Class D amp. They’re efficient, they’re powerful, and they’re versatile. How in the hell do you get one to work properly though?

Sadly, getting Class D amps to work on a breadboard is fairly tough. Remember, we’re dealing with high-frequency analog magic here, so stray capacitance, spaghetti wiring, and components mashed together in every which direction makes a dramatic impact on performance. The Class D amps I work with require fairly pristine electrical conditions to work in or else they become unstable or wont operate at all. I decided to give it a go anyways just for a proof of concept.

For my low-power proof-of-concept circuit, I went with a 15W/ch TPA3122D2 Class D amp. It’s the only DIP, stereo Class D I know of, and I’ve used it before, albeit, with questionable design decisions in retrospect. It should be good enough just for testing. I’ll chose a much more powerful 140W Class D for the final circuit, but we’ll get to that later.

The first circuit was fairly simple in concept.

Audio input -> pre-amplifier -> power amplifier -> speakers AND have the Teensy microcontroller sample the audio to create a little light show.


For the pre-amplifier, I was simply going to use a biased unity-gain op-amp.

If you already understand the concept of “biasing” and “DC offsets,” feel free to skip this section by clicking here, otherwise, read on!

More technical jargon, allow me to explain, as this concept took me a little bit to wrap my head around too, even though it’s fairly simple. A unity-gain op-amp’s job is simply to “buffer” the incoming signal. It will one-for-one match the input voltage level and provide no gain, therefore, no amplification. What’s the point of a unity-gain op-amp if it doesn’t amplify anything? For one, it gives the audio source one degree of separation from the rest of the audio circuit. More importantly, the incoming signal source doesn’t need strain itself at all in order to drive the main amplification circuit. The op-amp doesn’t sink any current* (ideally) from its inputs and only samples the signal voltage, essentially producing an isolated equivalent output on the other end. This way, it doesn’t matter if your signal source can provide 1000mA of current, or 10 mA, the voltage is all that matters and the signal source remains unloaded.

As for biasing, this is also a fairly simple concept that gets taken for granted and is therefore often skipped over when explaining a circuit. Basically, an op-amp can only produce output voltages between it’s positive power supply voltage pin and negative voltage supply pin. Op-amps can, in fact, happily handle fairly large input voltages and negative voltages on their inputs, which is somewhat uncommon to see when you’re used to digital circuits that tend to hang around the 1.8-5V range.

TL;DR: A bias is simply (your signal + a voltage). It allows you to shift a signal up. It is a “DC Offset.”

If you had the positive power supply pin of an **ideal** op-amp hooked up to a +15V supply and the negative power supply pin hooked up to -15V, you can produce any voltage on the output between -15 and +15 volts. “Ideal” is heavily emphasized, as most op-amps are not rail-to-rail (able to hit exact supply voltages), let alone ideal. Therefore, you’re looking at around +/-14V worth of room to work with depending on the op-amp, which is still more than enough for what we’re doing.

Normal audio signals will almost always center around 0V, meaning they will have positive voltages and negative voltages. “Line level” is generally 3 volts peak-to-peak, though particularly hot audio sources can sometimes go all the way up to 6 volts peak-to-peak or more. 3 volts peak-to-peak meaning the signal’s highest point will be around +1.5V and the lowest point will be around -1.5V, the distance between those two peaks would be 3V. With an op-amp that has access to +/-14V, we have plenty of room to recreate our signal.

A unity-gain op-amp with a +/-15V power supply (power supply pins not shown). Input signal is 5 Volts, peak-to-peak. Notice how the input signal is perfectly recreated on the output at the bottom of the image. 1K resistor is just to load the circuit.

Here’s the problem though, bipolar power supplies that can supply negative voltages are actually surprisingly uncommon and tricky to find unless you’re willing to create your own DC/DC circuit or transformer-based power supply, therefore, we usually only have positive voltages to work with.

Let’s assume our op-amp is now supplied with +12V on the positive power supply pin and 0V on the negative supply pin. If our audio signal produces any voltage between 0V and 11V, we’d be totally fine. The problem is, as mentioned before, normal audio signals will produce negative voltages. We cannot produce any voltage lower than 0V on our op-amp, therefore, the signal is “clipped,” and the result is heavy distortion. Half of our waveform is now gone, which is obviously no good. How can we use a unity-gain buffer with a single-voltage power supply? Biasing.

12V and 0V power-in, same 5Vpp input. Notice how the top of the waveform translates over fine, but the bottom half is cut off at the 0V line. Since we don’t have a negative supply, we can’t produce any voltage under 0V!

What if we could make the input signal ‘zero-cross’ at 6V instead of 0V?  That way, we have 6V on each side of the waveform to work with instead of +12V in one direction. That is what biasing does.

Basically, all we’re doing is shifting the input wave up a little to make sure it stays within our valid voltage range. We can create a rudimentary bias voltage by simply using a voltage divider to split +12V in half. Two 10K resistors in series to ground will produce +6V in the middle when connected to +12V. Then, we simply connect that +6V to our audio signal source through a high-value resistor (1M does well), and boom, biased op-amp. Adding a couple support components like capacitors will help with stability and blocking DC.

12V & 0V supply, but this time with a 6V bias on the input signal. Notice how the output waveform is no longer clipped at the thick grey 0V line and has been shifted up. (Ignore the misleading graph scaling, the AC voltage is basically untouched. Notice how the voltage-per-division boxes are stretched differently.)

Blocking DC? Yep, we’re not done yet. DC voltages are extremely undesirable for audio circuits. Not only do DC voltages have the ability to accidentally bias components that aren’t expecting it, but they can burn out your speakers! DC voltages should be isolated and avoided at all costs. But wait, we just introduced DC voltage directly into our circuit via our bias circuit. How do we get rid of it and return to an unbiased, 0V zero-crossing AC signal? DC blocking capacitors. Capacitors will block DC and will only allow AC to pass through them. Therefore, in this example, adding a 10uF capacitor to the output of the op-amp will remove our DC bias and leave us with a perfectly buffered signal with no distortion.

Notice how the 10uF cap on the end shifts the AC voltage back down again. (Again, please ignore the misleading graph scaling. An RC filter was formed in this simulation, but is unrelated to the point, ignore the slight voltage drop.)


Again, a bias is simply (your signal + a voltage). It will shift up your signal by the voltage you apply. Then, you can remove that shift up with a DC blocking cap. Phewph.

By the way, those simulator schematics above are kind of janky and were only required to make it work. Here is the actual circuit I used:

The way I would bias an unity-gain op-amp with a +12V power supply. R1-R3 divide 12V/2 to form 6V. R2 prevents R3 from sinking nearly any input signal power. C1 stabilizes the 6V from the voltage divider. C2 is a decoupling cap. C3 removes the DC offset (bias voltage).

If you are using a stereo audio stream, like I was, you will require two of those circuits. Fortunately, most op-amps come in dual or quad varieties. I used the LM833, but there are lots and lots of them out there. SA5532, TL072, LM358, just to name a few.

Breadboard Power Amp

Okay, finally, on to the rest of the prototype. For the most part, assembly was fairly straight forward. I just followed the datasheet provided by TI. They almost always include an example diagram that should get you up and running in no time.

You can find the datasheet I used for the test amp here

To start, I always set the gain control to the lowest value, so I would ground pins 14 & 15. Pin 3, the MUTE pin, would also be grounded. Pin 2, the SHUTDOWN pin, is connected to 12V along with the AVCC and PVCCL/R pins.

In the datasheet on page 12, you will also find a section on how to choose filter cap and inductor values. I am using a 4 ohm, single-ended configuration. A single-ended configuration means that the speaker is tied to one audio output line and ground. BTL, or “Bridge Tied Load,” means the speaker is connected between two output lines, usually for more power. For now, I’ll be using a single-ended configuration, but later, we’ll move to BTL. Anyways, according to the charts, I need a 22uH inductor and a 680nF cap for my filter.


Once the amp was set up, I hooked up my cheap little speakers and used their box as a temporary enclosure. Additionally, I set up a little Teensy board to sample the right channel of the audio input line. I create a circuit to do this correctly a bit later, but for now, I’m able to run a cool little FFT neopixel program on it to give me a mini light show to the music. I used a SN74LVC245 to translate the 3.3V signals from the Teensy to the 5V neopixels (WS2812), which were running off a 5V buck converter module. The Teensy was also powered by this buck converter.

Here’s a video of the first signs of life!

Some early pitfalls:

Class D amps, and well, anything analog really, hate breadboards. I don’t blame them, to be honest. Loose connections, stray capacitance everywhere, long wires, high-frequency components all smushed together. If you build an amp on a breadboard, be prepared for miserable performance. That being said, I love to always test my projects on breadboards first because it generally makes understanding the fundamentals a lot easier.

One issue I ran into was the Class D amp I used refusing to operate, instead, it gave off an odd-clicking noise. This is likely either the thermal protection or the short-circuit protection oscillating, turning the amp on and off since it couldn’t stabilize. To get around this issue, I would keep power-cycling the amp by unplugging and re-plugging the main 12V power wire. If I could catch the power cycle just right, the amp would fire up. Obviously, this is probably terrible for everything involved, but, you know… prototype.

I also discovered that +24V is absolutely the way to go when it comes to powering these amps. The quality is substantially better and you get much less distortion or dropping out when loud bass notes hit. I rewired the circuit a bit to run on +24V instead of +12V. I added in an adjustable linear regulator to generate +12V for the op-amp and it’s bias supply as +24V is far too high for op-amps. That linear regulator is hooked up to the potentiometer you see in the next video below.

Yeah, don’t be jealous of my sick reflex enclosure. Funny thing about that cardboard box though. In the video above, you’ll see me press the driver down into the box, snubbing some of the vibrations it generated. In person, it makes a pretty dramatic difference to the audio quality. Enclosures, vibration control, and predicting how the air will interact with itself are all parts of the amazing audio engineering puzzle that we sadly won’t be touching upon here, but are fascinating none the less.


Alright, so that simple pre-amplifier “unity-gain op-amp” circuit that we spent so much time learning about has done it’s job admirably, but it’s time for an upgrade. For the final circuit, I’d like to have two audio inputs on the outside of the unit and one audio input on the inside of the unit. I’d like to be able to mix between them on the fly. The internal audio input will be useful if my client wants to add bluetooth audio support or have something inside of the enclosure to send audio to the amp. I’d also like a couple outputs – one external “mix out” line and one buffered audio line that the microcontroller can sample for the lights. The final mix will be sent to both the power amplifier and the two line level output lines.

This mixing circuit prototype actually went really, really well. I followed this guide and I really love the modular mindset. The performance is fantastic as well.

For the most part, I simply copied this schematic set verbatim and it worked out fine. I only changed a couple things:

  1. I got rid of the gain potentiometers, but kept the volume pots. I removed gain pots (R2A & R2B) and R3 & R6 and replaced that part of the circuit with a single 47K resistor. This gave the input amps unity gain, similar to our previous amp. I didn’t need those gain knobs as I felt 1-to-1 gain was fine and I’d prefer the PCB not be mega huge because of the interface panel.
  2. I ditched the biasing trick we learned in the previous section. Biasing all of those inputs correctly would have been a real pain, so I decided to move over to bi-polar power supplies at that point. Also, the op-amp topology was fairly different, as this approach relied on an inverting schema rather than non-inverting. Don’t have a bi-polar supply? I’ll show you how to make one for cheap!

Here’s how to make a +/-9V power supply using two 9V batteries and a bit of wire.

Pinch a bit of stranded wire in-between the positive and negative terminals of two 9V batteries. This is your “0V” point. The exposed + terminal is your +9V, the exposed – terminal is your -9V. Measuring between the two exposed terminals will give you about 18-19V.

Make sure to connect the 0V middle wire to the GND of your mixer circuit!

You can also attempt to create a negative voltage generator using a 555, which does work, but they can’t really supply a whole lot of current and they tend to operate smack dab in the middle of the audible frequencies, so your signal is tainted with an annoying tone. I don’t recommend it, but you’re free to give it a try! 

Oh, another annoying thing, you’re going to need some dual gang potentiometers. The most common types do not fit in a breadboard, so I had to assemble a little breakout board.

Damn you, dual-gang pots. By the way, if you’re searching for audio potentiometers, search for “Dual Gang Logarithmic” ones. They will be marked with an ‘A.’ Linear potentiometers, marked with a ‘B,’ will work in a pinch, but their tapers are not designed for audio. Remember, audio volume is measured in decibels. The decibel scale is logarithmic, not linear. Check here for a bit more information on linear v. log pots.

After it was all hooked up, I had this!

Two mixing channels and a master volume controller on the final summing amp for this prototype. This circuit worked stunningly well, even on a breadboard. I was super impressed. The modular design of it makes it super easy to add as many channels as you want, too.

I used all LM833 op-amps soldered to little DIP adapter boards for this (though I was also testing an LM358 in the video).

Flux, good solder, and a chisel tip is all you need for sparkly clean SMD joints!

Eventually, I just ordered up a little +/-15V switch mode power supply board.

Bastards lasered off the part number on the main IC, making it “impossible” to look up the chip they used to design the circuit.

By “impossible,” I mean “minor annoyance.” I placed a little piece of kapton tape over the lasered part and firmly pressed it in place. Angle the light just right and hey, what do you know, it’s the XLSemi XL6019 

This board works a treat and injects only a tiny amount of noise into the circuit, only really audible using headphones. I can’t really hear anything on full-sized speakers.

Makin’ the BIG BOARD

Cool. By now, I’ve become pretty confident with my ideas so far, so I figured I’d go big or go home. Yeah, enough of this 15W nonsense. Let’s bump it up by an order of magnitude. Let’s go with the raw, ear shredding fury of the

Hell. Yes. Check this bad boy out

70W and channel, 140W total. Damn, I bet this amp is gonna be…

..ww…wha.. It’s so.. tiny… How the heck do you push 70W through those teeny-tiny legs? That’s more power than an old-school incandescent light bulb consumes.

Do you see why I think using Class D amps feels like you’re cheating the laws of physics? I understand the relationship between conductor length, resistance, and heat dissipation but STILL.

Alright, I’ll trust the TI engineers. In fact, I’m going to try and follow their reference verbatim. Honestly, with circuits that sink this much energy and rely on precision high-frequency switching, you really don’t want to free-hand this IC. Instead, look around to see if the IC manufacturer has created a demonstration board for their product. More often than not, their demo board web page will contain a whole bunch of great resources and in-depth examples that will help you create a high-performance design. You don’t have to buy the demo board of course, just reference it’s resources.

The TPA3156D2DAD does indeed have one of these demo boards.

More importantly, the demo board has it’s own datasheet with a TON of reference material and design examples. It even tells you the exact components they selected in the bill of materials!

Example schematics can also be found in the main datasheet, as well as a ton of helpful formulas and component value recommendations.

For the most part, the power-amp section of my design tries to follow the same design patterns as the development board. It may sound fun to cowboy the layout, but trust me, leave it to the brilliant engineers that designed this IC. They are going to know what’s best, so it’s really smart to use the resources they provide to create a design that mimics theirs. It’s not art theft, it’s a manufacturer recommendation… at least that’s what I told my Deviant Art followers.

My Design Considerations

  • This power amp will be a “Master” device with the gain programmed to be 26 dB. Page 13 of the main datasheet tells you which resistor values to use for that. Breakout the SYNC pin in-case you want to add another slave amp in the future.
  • My speakers will all be 8 ohms, therefore, the recommended output filter shown in the demo board datasheet example schematics (page 11) will work just fine.
  • The example mute circuit shown in the demo board schematic is designed for a push-button. Modify it to work with a slide switch.
  • Break-out the AM avoidance lines with with jumpers. You never know when you might have to change one of those settings in the future.
  • I’ll use fork (spade) connectors to inter-connect everything since they’re fairly robust and easy to connect and disconnect.
  • I’ll want some reverse current protection. A simple diode-fuse configuration should work just fine.
  • My main power supply will be 24V. I’ll use a external switch mode module to generate +/-15V for the op-amps.
  • I want three input mixing channels, all unity gain with volume control. There will be one unbuffered mixed output and a buffered mixed output for the MCU.
  • For everything else, I will try to recreate the TI example circuit as best I can to optimize performance. Keep those traces thick!

Here’s what I came up with for my amp and mixer schematic, click for a full view…

And the PCB without the ground pours. Notice how my topography tries to copy the TI demo board. I kept my power traces and output traces like Aku likes his Pizza. Plop down vias like they’re going out of style. This design worked almost perfectly. There is a sneaky little error with the C17 and C18 biasing the MCU op-amp, but I’ll go over how I fixed that soon.


Here’s the microcontroller board in charge of sampling the audio mix…

I made sure this board was fused as well. I also found a great little DC-DC buck converter module capable of driving a 4 amp load in a 5x5mm footprint, which is incredible. The unit itself is INSANELY tiny. The box they shipped in seems comically over sized, three of them are in the top right of this image. Again, I simply followed the datasheet recommendations for the buck-converter components and board layout since it is a high-current, high-frequency device. She works a treat!


For everything else on the breakout board, I simply broke out a few pins on the Teensy for possible future use, as well as a few extra level-translated outputs, again, just in case. In retrospect, I probably should have gone with one of the smaller Teensys, but they are mostly pin-compatible with one another, so it’s not too big of a deal. It’s nice to have an upgrade-downgrade path if needed. I did have a minor oversight on this board as well, but I’ll go over how I fixed it in my troubleshooting section.

After sending my gerber files over to the fab, a couple weeks later, I had my PCBs and components! Let’s get building!

I have an SMD workflow. I greatly prefer it over through-hole. If you have a steady hand and good eyesight, it’s substantially faster than THT.

My “pick and place” machine

Board is populated and fresh out of the reflow oven!

All done! How pretty… No shorts whatsoever, first reflow worked out great!

I managed to find some aluminum heatsinks on Amazon that fit the TI specification of 25×50 fairly well. I also picked up some cheap tubes of thermal glue – not thermal paste, mind you. I’d like the heatsink to remain in-place, so thermal glue fits the build better. I cleaned the heatsink off with a little acetone first, then applied a tiny amount of thermal glue to it and the power amp IC. It only took about a day to cure and it’s on there pretty good!

I also had the chance to try out a new solder paste that I just love. It worked SO well, it’s crazy. It smells like pine-sol and death, so it must be good.

SMD Reflow Tips


  1. Get a stencil. No seriously, get one. Trust me, it’s worth it.
  2. Use leaded solder if you can get it. Tin solder just SUCKS when you try to reflow it as it takes way higher temps.
  3. Use tubed solder-paste, rather than paste from a tub container. You usually get less paste in a tube for the money, but since it never dries out, you get substantially better performance.
  4. Use other PCBs around your main PCB when using the stencil to keep it in place and to have a flat surface to squeegee your paste on.
  5. Make sure your stencil is lined up as perfectly as possible. Try your best to get an even spread on the first pass, double checking that every component got covered. Then, quickly remove the stencil in one quick movement.
  6. A smudgy paste-job will make shorts much more frequent. If you can get the paste perfectly applied on each individual pad without any overlap, your board might come out with zero shorts on the first try.
  7. A steady hand and good eyesight really makes all the difference. If you’re dealing with a tricky part, hold your breath while placing it to stabilize yourself. If you can place the part with minimal smudging and good accuracy, you will get less or no shorts.
  8. Parts will move in-place by themselves when reflowing due to surface tension. You don’t have to place parts absolutely dead center, but good accuracy really reduces shorted or “tombstoned” parts. Just make sure the pads are all lined up.
  9. You don’t need a dedicated reflow oven, a toaster oven works just fine. With leaded solder, place your board in the oven and let it heat up to around 350°F (~175°C). You’ll see the components seat themselves. Wait a bit, turn off the oven, open the door. Let it cool naturally. I advise not using a toaster oven that you eat food out of.
  10. Examine your boards carefully for shorts using a microscope or magnifier. You can also hold your board up to a light source to see through it and spot shorts. Touch up shorts with an iron and lots of flux.
  11. A hot-air gun is extremely useful for parts that have phantom shorts or are not seated correctly. Highly recommended.

Audio Crossovers

Here’s something new that I wasn’t really aware of before this project: Audio Crossovers. What is a crossover? It’s a set of frequency filters that assign frequency bands to specific speakers. In a two-way crossover, the higher frequencies are sent to the tweeter while the lower frequencies are sent to the mid-range speaker. These protect your speakers from frequencies outside of their “frequency response,” which may distort or damage them if played. The frequency response of a speaker is simply the range of audio frequencies that the speaker can produce.

Basically, your amp is capable of producing the full audible spectrum of sound. The crossover is in charge of splitting that full spectrum up and delegating portions of it to each speaker. They’re simply arrangements of low-pass, high-pass, and band-pass filters, if you’re looking for google-able terms.

Ideally, you’d generally want to look for a set of speakers and a crossover circuit that would give you a “flat” frequency response. This generally involves quite a bit of engineering, equipment, and expertise to achieve. Since these speakers are not going to be for critical listening, some generic commercial crossovers will likely do just fine as you can find them for fairly cheap online.

How do you choose a crossover?

  1. How many types of speakers are you driving per channel? A tweeter and a midrange? You’ll need a “2-way” crossover. If you have a subwoofer, you will need a “3-way” crossover.
  2. What is the frequency response of your speakers? You can usually find this on their store page, box, or label. In my case, I have a tweeter and a midrange on each channel. The midrange’s FR is 600-10,000Hz and the tweeter’s FR is 3,200-20,000 Hz. I need a 2-way crossover that begins operating around 3,200 Hz, as that is where my tweeter starts responding. My crossover should split up the 0-20,000+Hz full spectrum from my amp into two sections, <3200’ish Hz for the midrange, >=3200 Hz for the tweeters.
  3. Make sure the crossover you select can handle your power requirements, otherwise, you might burn something out!
  4. You will require a crossover for each channel. Therefore, if you have a stereo setup, you will need two crossovers.
  5. Proper custom crossover design requires extensive testing and expertise. If you’re designing for critical listening, avoid pre-made crossovers. Custom crossovers will almost always sound better, but for all intents and purposes, commercial crossovers will work just fine.

Here are the ones I bought.

Power Supplies

I went with a 24V industrial power supply since they are super easy to connect multiple devices to. The particular one I went with is a 350W Meanwell, which is absolutely overkill in terms of power required, but Meanwell makes really good power supplies, so I went with them rather than a cheaper, sketchier PSU vendor. You could also look for 12-24V DC power bricks too, but those are generally a bit harder to connect multiple devices to. Be careful when working with industrial power supplies though, as they really mean business with their output capabilities and require you to work with mains power. If you’re not comfortable working with mains, stick with a power adapter. If you work with an industrial power supply, you’re also probably going to want a power switch too!

First Tunes!

Everything is all hooked up for the first test! Make sure to test before applying your heatsink glue ;)

Finally, after a month or so of R&D, the moment has come. After testing the board with my current-limited bench power supply to make sure there weren’t any obvious shorts, I migrated over to my floor and began connecting all of the components together. the two red boards you see are my crossovers. The industrial power supply is just out of frame and is powering the amp board and the little blue +/-15V voltage generator. State of the art ESD protection was implemented by me trying not to rub my feet on the carpet too much and touching the chassis of the power supply before I poked anything else.

Yeah! Nothing feels better than a PCB that works on the first try! There was a tiny issue that I discovered a little bit later into testing, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t fix with a couple resistors. Again, I’ll explain in the final troubleshooting section later.

Light Show!

The sounds work great, what about the sights? Time to put the light-show board to work. After a little bit of hooking-up, the light-show board was ready to go and was sampling audio from the mixer. This time, I hooked up about 90 addressable LEDs.

…but.. hm.. It “works,” but just.. not that well. Huh. The performance was inconsistent and the light circuit seemed to be picking up a ton of noise. After a bit of deliberation, I decided that the way I was sampling audio was really not ideal. It was at this point where I made a really dumb mistake – a particularly catchy tune was playing on the amp board, but I wanted to work on the light-show board. Okay, not an issue, just disconnect the power cables from the board and..

What ever happened here was fairly violent. Caps moved around from the hot air gun btw.

OH GOSH. Wow, sorry little buck converter module. What happened? Truthfully, I’m not too sure. I disconnected the positive 24V in lead first, so I didn’t have a “ungrounded” fault. I suspect that I may have caused some sort of fly-back malfunction while loosening the 24V cable. The module was running well within it’s spec, with the lights only drawing about 1.5A at max. Either way, that scared the hell out of me and necessitated me building another board since the traces were so damaged. Ughk, fine, whatever.


Other than the magical exploding DC/DC module, there were only a few small fixes I needed to make.

First up, I wanted to fix the sampling circuitry for the Teensy’s ADC audio input. The problem was that I was relying too much on resistors and relatively weak clamping diodes to protect me from audio sources that are a bit too hot. Also, the Teensy is unable to measure negative voltages, which is a real disadvantage for audio sampling. Not only would I not get the negative end of the audio waveform, but I’d also risk damaging the Teensy if an operator attached an extremely hot audio source. PJRC actually made a brief post on how to translate +/-5V “control-voltage” signals down to the 0-1.2V range, which would be perfect, since I could then use the Teensy’s high-accuracy internal voltage reference instead of the flakier 3.3V external reference. I changed a couple component values to adjust the input voltage range to around 3.5Vpp, but the result is fairly similar. The 27K resistor should also help protect against extremely hot inputs.

I doubled up this circuit, one for each channel. The two 1K resistors on the PCB will mix them down to a single channel. There is a LD1117 linear regulator on my new breakout to supply a stable 3.3V.

According to my simulator, this little circuit should have done the job nicely. But huh… I’m still getting really inconsistent performance with my LEDs. What gives? It’s like there is a ton of noise on this line or something. Wouldn’t it be funny if there was like a DC bias or something on the buffered mixer? Heh I’ll just go ahead and check with my multimeter just in ca…


Thankfully, those 1K mixing resistors combined with the clamping diodes inside of the Teensy likely saved me, but I was still 50% over the current limit of 10mA. I think I got really lucky, my Teensy should have been toast. What the hell is supplying 15V to the MCU buffer op-amp?

As it turns out, it was C17 and C18. They shouldn’t have ever been at that voltage, but it seems as though the initial power-up, or perhaps a stray voltage source, tosses a 15+V pulse into the system, which charged those caps up. Since those caps aren’t being sampled by anything that sinks any significant direct current, they never discharge, and the MCU buffer op-amp is registering them as a DC offset and biasing itself to compensate. Super strange issue that I would have never caught beforehand. Thanks for the tip, Natalie! The result is a permanent +15V on the output of the MCU buffer op-amp, instead of a purely AC audio signal. A couple bodged 100K resistors to ground quickly fixed that issue. I updated my schematic to reflect those resistors.

No shame in a little bodge. It’s better than damaged components.

After those two fixes, BOOM! Lights worked GREAT! Here’s a demonstration of them running in “VU Meter” mode.

Amazing! It looks so cool! That little DC/DC module is seriously impressive. It’s about the size of my pinky finger nail and is supplying about 1.5-2A of power without a sweat.

The speakers themselves sound amazing in person. They come across as tinny on my phone’s microphone, but in real life, they’re fairly full and impressive sounding, even without a subwoofer or enclosure. Totally loud enough to shake my fillings. Wait, I don’t have any fillings. You get the idea.

What’s Next?

Well, this only happens to be one half of the entire project. The enclosure is being handled by the person that commissioned this system, so I’ll leave that part to them. At this point, I’m interested in creating some more amazing amplifier projects. This stuff is endlessly fascinating. Who knew so much went into “make small noise more louder.”

If I had to re-design this board, I would make the following changes:

  1. Find a way to make the mixer-amp board a bit smaller. Maybe even separate the mixer and amp board to make it easier to expand the mixer input panel a bit and not worry about the size of the amp board.
  2. Find a smaller sized 1000uF 24V+ cap. The ones I got work fine but are a little big.
  3. Integrate my new ADC breakout circuit on the light-show board.
  4. Create my own custom power supply solution for the +/-15V generator.

Helpful Resources

Here are some of the places I searched around for helpful info and tips:

And yet again, my good friend Natalie who was always happy to give me extremely helpful answers no matter how trivial they seemed. You rock.

The Fake YM2612 Mystery Game

I recently got a new batch of YM2612s. Fake as all get out, every last one of them.

Funnily enough, David Viens, AKA Plogue, dropped an EXCELLENT video explaining the matter in detail. Likewise, Natalie also published a great little guide on how to spot fake YM2612s as well.

All of this made me wonder: what chips did I actually get? Let’s have a little fun and figure out this mystery! I won’t be able to tell you what the exact IC is with 100% confidence, but we can at least find out what device it might have been.

(click on the images for their full resolution)


The Obvious Give-Aways

Let’s talk about how I know these are fake just by looking at them.

  1. The surface. It has a characteristic “sanded-and-ever-so-slightly-tacky-rubbery” feeling of black-topped chips.
  2. The chip package. Yamaha and all of the fabs they commissioned never produced YM2612s with this chip package style. Check out the notch on the left side, it should be all the way through.
  3. The font. Yeah, nice try guys, but that font is all wrong. Way too tall and skinny.
  4. Date code is invalid. That date code would read “Week 01 of year 2019.” Yamaha ain’t makin’ these chips in 2019, as much as I’d wish they did.
  5. On the back-side, it is stamped “KOREA.” Real YM2612’s are 100% pure-bred Japanese ICs.

Any other tells? Well, plug one of these fake chips in and they don’t make any sound at all. That’s kind of a dead give-away, duh. They also do not get warm like a real YM2612 does during normal operation.

Applying a bit of acetone to the IC gives similar results to David’s video linked above. Almost immediately, a slurry of inky-black cancer liquid wicks up onto my cotton swab. Interestingly, my chip markings are laser engraved quite deeply instead of simply being printed on. Sadly, though, the original chip details have been sanded away.


It’s at this point that I filed for an eBay refund and got a less-than-helpful response back from the seller.

Yeah okay man. Still waiting on that refund…

Edit: After a bit of back and forth, eBay did grant me my refund. The seller admitted that they themselves have been scammed by their supplier as they were told they were legitimate chips. I’ve now seen multiple people get the same fake chips as me, so I think one rogue supplier has poisoned the YM2612 supply with bogus ICs. Bummer.


Anyways, let’s have some fun and find out what this IC really is.

Any Guesses?

At this point, I figured I’d have a little fun and turn this into an IC guessing game. What lying silicon could be inside this epoxy prison?

My bet was on some sort of RAM or EEPROM. My reasoning for this was that RAM/ROM from this era was frequently found in packages like this and Korea has been a RAM/ROM/NAND manufacturer for decades now, however, Natalie was quick to point out that most EEPROM comes in DIP28 packages, not DIP24. So my money was now on RAM, which, sure enough, was fairly common in DIP24 packages.

In fact, if you search for “DIP24 RAM” in Google images, you’ll eventually stumble upon these images…

Those look almost identical to these fake YM2612s. I think we have a lead. Let’s get the Dremel and find out :)

Dremeling ICs is a Bad Idea

Alright, I don’t have fuming nitric acid in my room, sorry. Brute force with a Dremel will be ugly, but it should let us see if there is a die inside or not. Lots of dust and scary noises later…

Hey there, look at that! I know that I shredded most of the IC, but look near the top and bottom, that’s totally RAM!! You can also see the little bond-wires and pads near the bottom. Super cool! They did rebadge RAM ICs!


Well, let’s give my guess a try then. The Hyundai HY6116. It could be any RAM IC manufacturer since they all have similar pinouts. I’ve seen Hitachi variants, Cypress variants, Hynix variants, the list goes on. I think this IC looks similar to the Hyundai packaging, so I decided to look up a datasheet. Here’s a link to it.

If you examine the pinout, you’ll see this.

Fairly standard really. I’ll give it a go. I’ll hook up 5V to VCC/GND, then I’ll pull CS and OE low to enable the chip. I’ll then hook up an LED to one of the outputs, and the ESD from my fingers should trigger a random RAM read, lighting the LED.

Drawing more-or-less what you’d expect from 5V RAM from this era…

And hey, would you look at that, it does pretty much exactly what I thought it would do!

There we go! RAM Confirmed! The exact size of which I couldn’t tell you. If I had to take any guess without busting out a whole bunch of crazy gear, it would be the Hyundai HY6116 2K Static RAM IC. Mystery solved! I am now the proud owner of 10 SRAM ICs badged as YM2612s! Great…





Thanks for reading!

Boyko Neov has also received these same fake YM2612s and has taken the time properly decap these ICs with sulfuric acid. Like me, he also received SRAM chips. He has determined that these SRAM ICs are 2x8K in size. Here are the photos he submitted. Thanks Boyko, you’re awesome! Go chase down your refund!

Same surface features

Oh look, an LSI name with date code information!

SRAM memory cells are clearly visible here

This ain’t an FM IC


Thank you again, Boyko. Your photos are awesome!


Finally, I’d just like to point out that I’ve actually found legit YM2612’s with these bogus markings on them. What’s interesting is that these “real” YM2612’s feature the correct package style, but are black-topped with the same bogus lettering. If you receive a shipment of bogus looking chips, it might be worth giving them a test anyways just in case. Before you ask, no, I doubt Chinese sellers are reproducing YM2612 chips. It would be insanely impractical, so I wouldn’t worry about it. If the chip operates and sounds like a YM2612, it is one.

Using a MegaMIDI to test a legitimate YM2612 with bogus lettering.


The Rising Sun to Set Once More

April 2nd, 2019

All good things must come to an end, and this trip was no different. I think Abbie and I can leave totally satisfied, though. While there were still a couple things on the route we traveled that we would have liked to seen, the entire trip was a massive success. The weather, while a little cold in some places, was just perfect. We were never really rained on, maybe a few drops here and there, but never anything during the day. I mean, who would have expected snow at the Ryokan? A snowy, comfortable Japanese Inn was only one of the many “one-in-a-lifetime” events that happened due to sheer chance. Likewise, having all of the cherry blossoms bloom a week early and being present for the naming of a new era was also not planned at all. It just kinda’ happened.

Would I be able to top this trip? I’m not sure. We’ll see what happens next time. For now, let’s review the final day of our trip.

Abbie and I awoke early in order to pack everything away. We weren’t so sure that the bounty of souvenirs we gathered would fit, but somehow we managed. A few stories ago, I mentioned that Abbie had a side-goal of finding a shirt with her favorite English nonsense on it. We saw many fantastic examples of brilliant Japanese English on shirts, but there was one in particular that she loved the most.

Way back when we went to Sunshine City Mall, Abbie found a simple shirt that read,

“Obey me, for i am”

…And even after all that we’ve gone through, she still remembered exactly where that specific shirt was within the massive labyrinth of stores within Sunshine City. Our flight boarded at 4:30PM, so we still had plenty of time to use the last day of our rail passes to make a quest down back to sunshine mall and grab a last-minute memento. With a saying that good, it would be a shame to not pick it up.

The final morning down in Ikebukuro. Perfect weather.

It was a perfect day. Slightly a shame since the previous days were so chilly, but we decided to enjoy the nice send-off anyways. Sunny and 70°F. A great day for walking. We checked out of our hotel and had them hold on to our bags while we shopped. We hopped on the Yamanote line and darted off towards Sunshine City.

The sunlight always makes everything so pretty here

It was pretty neat to be here at 9:50AM. Since Ikebukuro was a massive shopping district city, and most stores here open at 10AM, you got to see everything open up and get ready for business. Bright and sunny with people walking the streets everywhere. Morning food vendors also began to pump mouthwatering smells of breakfast and lunch foods through the air. Abbie and I decided that if we were going to Sunshine City, might as well end the trip with another round of fantastic sushi from the restaurant we went to last time.

Gonna need this wall paper

It didn’t take long until we were climbing the Pokemon-themed escalators up towards the shops to find Abbie’s shirt. Gotta’ give the girl props, her memory is pretty fantastic – she found that shirt within minutes.

Target acquired. Though, she opted for a tanner version.

Another favorite of mine: “KNOWING IS NOT ENOUGH -MUST APPLY-“

I’m pretty sure not even a random phrase generator could come up with the sheer brilliance of decorative Japanese English phrases.

It was still early in the mall, so the normally crazy fountain was still turned off.

With funny shirt in hand, we still had about 45 minutes left to kill before the Sushi restaurant opened. I’m sure you could guess where we spent that time.

Nice Guess

I’ve probably photographed these guys like 100 times by now

…But can you blame me?

After spending even more money at the Pokemon center (Hey I needed Pikachu ramen for back home, OK?), it was time for our final meal in Japan. The same delicious sushi and sashimi assortments we got last time we were here. Every single time, they have been perfect. I think this is one of my favorite sushi spots.

So soft. So flavorful. So, SO good.

Abbie opted for the sashimi again

We savored every last bite. A meal symbolic of the trip. Now it was over and it was time to head home.

After the meal, it was time to go back to the hotel to pick up our bags and schedule our ride on the Narita Express – the train back to Narita Airport. We made our way through the lively shopping streets of Ikebukuro and got back on the Yamanote line.

It was such a beautiful morning

The massive Ikebukuro Train Station

Life goin’ on.

Once we made it back to the hotel, we gathered our bags and began to make our way out. Abbie mentioned that she forgot her neck pillow in the room and asked if the hotel staff had found it. The woman operating the counter happily turned around and grabbed two items that we had left behind – Abbie’s pillow and a screwdriver set. The screwdriver set I actually bought cheap from a Kombini when Abbie bought her Kirby Otamatone instrument. It had a screwed-together battery slot, and we just couldn’t wait to play with it. Unfortunately, that’s all the use I could get out of that driver set since I later found out that I wouldn’t be able to take it onto the plane with me since we were carry-on only and I didn’t want to check my bag. I explain these facts to the woman running the hotel counter and told her that they may keep them. “Oh, presento!?” She asked. “Hai!” I replied. I soon was given a flood of “Domo Arigatogozaimashitas.” Haha wow, I’m very glad she liked the new present. Enjoy the screwdriver set. At least they won’t go to waste! “Sayonara!” We say.

It was time to go home.

Last trip on the Yamanote. It’s always a little bitter-sweet. Japan is such a wonderful place, but you begin to long for home.

We made our way to Tokyo Station and followed the red N’EX path on the floor. Soon, we saw what I dubbed to be the “Goodbye Stairs.” The final stairway towards the N’EX that would take you away from Tokyo.

Not the best photo (sorry random guy), but you get the idea. It’s an escalator.

…We actually had to go back up because we didn’t get reservations. Apparently, you need those for the N’EX. Alright hold on… back up the stairs.  We actually missed the train we wanted to originally get on, but thankfully, just for this hour, there just so happened to be two trains spaced 30 minutes apart. Another stroke of luck along this trip, but we’ll just pretend that we planned this out in advance, just like everything else.

Back down the stairs. Now we can say goodbye.

It didn’t take long for the iconic red, white, and black train to arrive in Tokyo Station’s basement platform to come pick us up. It’s funny, every so often during your trip, you would see the N’EX pull through the various stations throughout Tokyo as if it were some sort of spirit stalking you, constantly reminding you that one day, your trip will in fact end. Melodrama aside, it was something that always popped into my head when I saw it. Now it was our turn. The train caught up with us and now it was time to go home.

It was lovely to see all of Tokyo go by on this train again though. It’s always a great little summary ride through the gigantic mega-city and a little bit of the rural zones between Tokyo and Narita. All of the cherry trees were fully blossomed. It was a great little send off. The trip took about 50 minutes and I decided to not take any photos like last time and just enjoy the ride for myself.

Soon, we were at the airport. It didn’t take long until Abbie and I were presented with the real world when some horribly rude Australian tourists berated and screamed out (seriously what is actually wrong with some people?) a man who was standing on the wrong side of the escalator. Welp.. is it too late to just turn around and grab a few more nights in a hotel? It is? Ah well.

Other than that… thing… everything was smooth sailing. Abbie and I printed our boarding passes and sailed right through Narita’s lightning-fast and friendly security. Seriously, America absolutely SUCKS when it comes to airport security. Why does it have to be so hard? It’s so painless in Japan. I didn’t even have to remove my shoes.

Our ride. Boeing 777-300ER. Look at the size of those engines! GE-90’s are insane!

Protip: If you’re a bit of an aircraft nerd like me, research the plane you’re going on. ANA’s 777-300ERs have seats that are normally in a 3-4-3 configuration, meaning 3 people left side, 4 middle, 3 people right side. BUT, the last few sets of seats are in a 2-4-2 configuration. Paired with ANA’s already excellent legroom, this makes for a spectacularly comfortable economy seat. All the room I could ask for and no random strangers to crowd me in the middle seat or to climb over. SO nice. I’ve never sat in an economy seat where I could comfortably extend my legs fully. I’m spoiled now.

Couldn’t have asked for a better partner. I hope you enjoyed the trip, Abbie. Told you I’d take you one day.

Japan had one final send off for us.

A Sunset

But not just any sunset

One of the very best I’ve ever seen. Look closely near the left horizon and you can see Tokyo SkyTree. Click the image for the full resolution.

Thank you to all the special people we met along the trip. Japan, you are amazing.

New Era

April 1st, 2019

(This song has my favorite keyboard solo [near the 3:00 mark] of all time btw. The keyboardist is also my favorite, Minoru Mukaiya. He is also responsible for the many train departure warning jingles throughout Japan’s train stations)

Dawn of the final (full) day. My back hurts. I long for a squishy bed. We had a plan today: speed run as many iconic sights as we could just so we could say that, yes, we saw them. Normally, I would hate doing something like this since it sounds like an onslaught of tourist traps. It was, but keep in mind that I’m not traveling solo this time. I think Abbie should get the chance to at least see some of these iconic locations before we leave. I also suspect that lots of the places we visit will be televised for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, so it will be really fun to say, “Remember when we went there? Yeah!”

Before we hit the tourist traps though, I made a point that we had to experience Hanami in Ueno Park. That would be our last “slow” activity to really take-in before we rushed around Tokyo. Something special was also happening this morning as well: The naming of a new Imperial Era. Right now, Abbie and I are in the Heisei Era. The Heisei era has been around since 1989 and will be ending at the end of this month, since the emperor is abdicating his position to his son. A “passing of the crown through abdication” like this hasn’t happened for nearly 200 years, so needless to say, it’s pretty interesting to be here for the announcement.

Ueno Station. This is a real image that Abbie took and has not been altered. It’s a good example of how the sun lights things differently here. It looks like an over-exposed 3D render, but I assure you, it’s real. It’s like living in a world with cartoon lighting.

All of the major news channels were filled with images of the politicians congregating around fancy tables and discussing the semantics of the new era name with the emperor. The new era name will be officially unveiled at 11:30AM today. Abbie and I decided that it would be amazing to experience the reactions of Japan in the sakura-filled Ueno Park. So we made our way down.

A little crowded, but not so bad.

Blossoms everywhere!

Hundreds of families enjoying their Hanami picnics on blue tarps

Soon, the clock rolled around to 11:30AM. The new era name has been announced. I check the news sources on my phone.


It’s “Reiwa.” It means something along the lines of fortunate/auspicious harmony. I think it’s fitting and everyone here seems to really like it.

Here for the naming of a new era!

Again, it’s important to note that the era won’t “go into effect” until next month, but the naming event was still really cool. The new era name has been shrouded in secrecy for ages now, so getting to see everyone’s reaction to the reveal was really neat.

In the center of Ueno Park lies a courtyard with big open spaces, a really cool fountain, and a musician playing jazzy guitar licks. I like the ambiance.

This is a good place in the world.

Even as we left the park, the trees were in full, beautiful bloom.

A temple with its blooming tree

Even near the rough and rugged train tracks, there are beautiful trees

Abbie and I walked all the way back up to Nippori Station from Ueno park. This was a really long walk (and in retrospect, we shouldn’t have done it because we were exhausted at the end of it), but it was nice. I think we may have accidentally stumbled into the red-light district though. Love hotels for as far as the eye could see. I’ve never seen so many in once place before. Let’s go ahead and get out of here.

Crossing over all the various train tracks

Okay, let’s get some lunch and hit the trains. We’ve got a lot to see! We stopped into a local ramen bar.

Abbie’s lunch. Salt ramen with thin noodles

My lunch. Cream broth with thick noodles. So heavy. So good.

Delicious! But it feels like I just ate a brick. Abbie chose the salt ramen because it was a far lighter meal, but I just had to go with the cream broth. Don’t let hungry eyes dictate what you eat before a long walking day!

Alright. Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building? Yeah let’s hit it.

…A reasonably crowded train ride later.

Yeah, still really tall

The bright and sunny day we started off with was quickly devolving into a cold and stormy one. The temperature would be fine if it wasn’t for the freezing, persistent ocean wind. Guh.

Massive courtyard with odd orange pillar statues.

After waiting for about 45 minutes in an elevator line, we made our way up. Hey, at least this is free.

Great views from here. Look, you can even see the SkyTree

It really does just go on forever

People enjoying Hanami in a park below us.

Abbie continues her series of “T-Posing in interesting places”

Where did our sunny day go?

Tokyo really does go on forever. Okay, on to the next stop: Harajuku. Last time I visited Harajuku, I was just on the cusp of becoming the sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I couldn’t tell if I had a negative experience in Harajuku because of my impending illness or because I just genuinely hated Harajuku. Well, let’s find out.

…Yeah nah I just really hate Harajuku. This place suuuuuucks. It’s the most crowded area we’ve seen thus far. It’s not just crowded, it’s dangerously crowded. It’s crowded to the point of being a genuine trample hazard. If someone trips here, it’s gonna end very poorly for them. Pushy, shovey, packed to the gills, 45 minute waits for every single thing. Awful. Even the little secret side streets, while less crowded, still have huge wait times for every little cafe. If you’re here for the first time, avoid Harajuku. Take a photo of the Takeshita Street sign or something and get out of there.

A brief moment of escape in a crowded, tall building. This is pretty far from Takeshita, but it was still packed everywhere. Imagine that crowd, but x20.

By now, Abbie and I were really cold and exhausted. I needed to warm up with another coffee and some carbohydrates to keep going. Every cafe is packed for miles though. Let’s just keep walking towards Shibuya until we find a cafe.

Walking to Shibuya. It’s really getting cold now!

After a lot more walking, we stumbled into a fancy coffee bar. This place was very fancy and very upscale (expensive). We didn’t care though – we were so tired and just wanted to sit and warm up with something hot and sugary. This was one of those places that hilariously tries to separate the “smoking” and “non-smoking” sections, even though they’re in the same building within close proximity with no barrier in between them. Yeah, if you have a “smoking” section, the entire restaurant is “smoking.” I am so glad we outlawed smoking in restaurants back home.

Anyways, the coffee was really good, but I don’t know about $7 for an Americano good. The Coffee House in Osaka’s got this beat by miles. The blueberry toast was good though.

Time to warm up. (Abbie got an iced drink, why?)

Alright, let’s get the Shibuya Crossing over with. Fortunately, this was very much a “Welp, there it is” kind of tourist destination.

…And yep. There it is. It’s a really big, crowded crosswalk.

I can assure you that this does in fact allow you to cross from one end of the street to the other.

Abbie wanted to check out one of the iconic shops here though.

Floor upon floor of girl things.

I was totally out of my element here, so I just let Abbie do her thing. Eventually, it was time to head back to the hotel. We did mostly everything we wanted to do today. Only thing that was missing was Ginza, but we saw most of the good stuff already anyways and we were totally wiped. I say that was a pretty successful speed-run of the city.

We ended the day off humbly with Onigiri riceballs from the local kombini and watched the cold rain fall outside our hotel window. I think this vacation was perfect. Last day is tomorrow, let’s think about the 10 hour flight later.

They were eager to give out free papers at major stations exclaiming the new era

Imperial Garden Hanami… and also Kirby Cafe

March 31, 2019

Abbie and I both knew what the main event was for today. There was no getting around the fact that we had to sacrifice another chunk of our last remaining days here in Tokyo at SkyTree, but the prospect of eating Kirby’s face was just too good to give up. We had quite a bit of time before our surprise reservation at the Kirby Cafe was available, so we needed something to do. How about we walk the Imperial Castle Grounds and see the gardens. I bet they’re full of blooming cherry trees and people participating in Hanami. Hanami (literally translated to “flower viewing”), is the springtime festival in Japan where families and friends will picnic underneath the blooming cherry trees and view the Sakura flowers that adorn them.

Yeah, last time I was at the castle grounds, it was lovely. Just walk right in and have a good time in the vast open spaces.

As you will soon see, a couple other people had the same idea.

But before we get into all that, let’s find some breakfast! We set out towards Tokyo station and left via the grandiose east exit. This station is remarkable.

As much as my camera could capture. This place is huge!

Pano shot, complete with humans in interesting shapes

Alright, let’s scope out some breakfast here. We casually strolled around Tokyo, both above and below ground, and eventually found a foodcourt under a massive shopping mall. This place was serving “California-style” bagels (is that a thing?). All around the store were California-themed works of art and the state flag. Hmmm.. Does this feel like home? No, but the bagels and locks were really good.

Pretty expensive for bagels and coffee. At least it was good!

Breakfast obtained. Off to the Imperial Gardens.

Crossing over a bridge to enter the Imperial Grounds

There is just an INSANE amount of people here. I’m willing to bet that there is over 10,000 people waiting in line, and that is not hyperbole. WOW. Security was really on the up-and-up as well. Bag screenings, metal detectors, K9 units. Man, last time I was here, it was an easy stroll through the front gates. I suppose it’s the last day of the Heisei era and it’s Hanami, so those two factors are likely contributing to the crowds, but wow I really didn’t expect this. Let’s find our way to the gardens ASAP since there is lots of space there.

After the massive initial crowds, the path split. One path continued forward while the other went up a steep hill. This steep hill lead to the imperial gardens, of course, but if you’re ever in a crowded situation and have a choice on where to go next, pick the path of greatest resistance. It filters out most of the people.

Once we crested the hill though, what followed was a beautiful walk through the blooming Imperial Gardens.


Big, blooming, colorful trees everywhere

Abbie next to a flowering tree

The flowers smell like… nothing. They sure are pretty, though.

Hundreds of people gather under the trees to picnic and appreciate their beauty

Sitting on a bench and taking it all in.

Vast, ancient gardens contrasted with ever more Tokyo construction in the background

All of the paths were covered in blossom petals

More than you could ever count

Atop the battlement looking down at the observatory

New and old

Lots of other trees were in bloom, too

Bridge from old world, to new world

I think you get the idea. Much like New York’s Central park, this vast preserved space is a green haven in a concrete mega jungle. Difference being that these two places differ in age by a few hundred years and as far as I know, central park doesn’t have a moat or ancient castles. It really was shaping up to be a lovely day though, as the weather had warmed up a bit. We walked for quite a bit already and were becoming a little fatigued. Let’s head back to the hotel for an hour and wait for our special dinner.

Soon, we find ourselves at the SkyTree yet again, but this time, with good reason.

Yep still tall.

It was time.

We met with another American couple who had also managed to snag some last second tickets. Since we were in the same time slot, I wonder if we saw the opening at the exact same time. A party of four must of canceled before us. We chat for a little bit before finally… Yes. We’re in. We made it.

Strike a pose! The server takes your photo right as you enter.

The entire restaurant is decorated with Kirby themes

A fiery Kirby hides inside of the coffee grinder

Original art everywhere!

Even the menus are great.

After a lot of deliberating, Abbie and I had our orders in mind. Abbie was going to get the pasta stew with cheese bread while I was going to get the vegetable curry. Abbie also ordered a decorative chocolate malt and a fancy tomato cheese cake for desert.

The delicious malted choco-drink, complete with whipped cream art.

It pained us to drink him. Kirby didn’t seem to like it.

Abbie’s meal. A tomato/meat stew served with cheese bread, fruit, and Japanese potato salad.


My dish. A vegetable curry, one side is tomato-based while the other is coffee based. Served with star rice pilaf, fried veggies, and inside Whispy Woods (tree) is potato salad, and cheese fondue.

You would expect a “theme-cafe” to have rather lack-luster food, since, you know… they usually do. But this was great. The food tasted wonderful and the flavors were super interesting.

And for desert…

A WONDERFUL cheese-cake with special tomato jelly served with a Maxim Tomato jar filled with tomato sorbet and acidic yogurt. Sounds exotic, tasted incredible.

We had made it. Abbie and I have wanted to go here ever since we heard about it in 2016, but never got the chance to. There was the very real possibility of missing it yet again, but through a stroke of sheer luck, we had made it. I can die happy now. You can all close down shop now, I’ve made the visit.

A Kirby Cafe spoon lays on the aftermath of our desert

Time to pay the cute-tax. Nintendo/HAL appreciates the blood-sacrifice. (~$90)

Expensive? Yes, very. Unforgettable experience? Totally. I say: worth it. The price of the meal was high, but as a consolidation, you’re given lots of stuff with your meal to take home. We walked out with a ceramic mug, a ceramic plate, two ceramic figurines, and even a little coaster. After dinner, you’re lead into the “exclusive” gift-shop. This shop was separate from the Kirby Cafe store we visited yesterday and had a few things that were exclusive to this area. This meant that we were going to spend even more money on expensive Kirby stuff, but I decided to pick up a few gatcha’s while Abbie got a shirt and a stuffed Kirby Chef. This place was so great. Let’s leave now before we bankrupt ourselves on Kirby memorabilia.

By now, it was only about 5PM. Still plenty of time to enjoy the night. Wanna hit up Akihabra again and play some arcade games? YEAH!

SkyTree from the train station at sunset. Seriously looks like some sort of fake fantasy backdrop.

Abbie’s shot

This train took us right to a JR station where we could transfer over to a line that took us straight to Akiba. It’s funny – we were just now getting used to the drastic time change, and it was already just about time to go back home. Oh well, at least we’ll see a little bit of this crazy city at night.

Crazier at night than during the day.

Electric City

Abbie hasn’t visited a proper Manga store yet. Well, this is the place to see a few (more like a billion of them). Manga and Anime isn’t my forte at all, so I was just as confused as she was. It really is all a spectacle though. You’re bombarded with art and sound from every angle. I didn’t know there was that many ways to draw skinny girls with colorful hair. Truthfully, it was hard to find any differences between the thousands of manga that all looked the same. I need to come here with someone that actually reads and watches this stuff because I’m in over my head. I did manage to find another volume of Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, basically, the only thing that I recognize. Abbie had become quite the fan of the anime over our vacation, so it was neat to point out that most animes that you see start out as Mangas sold in these stores.

Abbie and I picked out one manga each and we departed from the shop. Alright, I think that was enough of that for forever.

Let’s play some games.



First, we visited one of the arcades known for a few floors dedicated to vintage arcade titles, the “HEY” Arcade. That’s a little more up my alley. There was an entire floor dedicated to Japanese “Shoot-em ups” (AKA, Shmups). Essentially, take the play field and cover it with more projectiles than any sane person can reasonably process. That basically sums up bullet hell games. I found a Fantasy Zone cabinet – that was a little more my speed (also it has an awesome soundtrack). I wish they had one of the rare FZII cabinets, but this will do for now.



I can’t say that I’m the best at these kind of games (see: the worst), but they’re still fun none-the-less.

Resting in an ally with the Sega Arcade sign reflecting in the marble wall in front of us.

Let’s check back to see if the table-flip game is alive

We wandered back to Club Sega to see if the Table-flip game was alive again. Sadly, it was not. There was, however, Densha De Go, a super realistic train simulation cabinet that let you operate trains around this area. We had to give it a try.

Hey JR, I practiced my point-safety. Hit me up if you’re looking for new conductors.

Also this dude

I had to redeem myself.

Oh hey Goku


March 30, 2019

I can’t say that the hotel we’re staying at now is my favorite hotel ever. Rock hard beds, dated rooms, and pretty dirty showers. Why did I choose this place? Well… It’s was the only place left! Even months in advance, hotel rooms during sakura season skyrocket in price, so this was the last place I could find that had double-beds. It’ll do, and the staff are still friendly and hospitable… but oof.. my back…

One good thing about this hotel, however, is its location. The hotel is literally right outside of Nippori station which is a main transit hub for not only the JR lines, but lots of other private railways too. That means that transporting ourselves to basically anywhere in Tokyo is a breeze.

First, let’s get a little breakfast from the little coffee shop across the street.

Wonderful hotcakes with a cocoa for Abbie and a Latte for me.

Today, I want to visit one of the most iconic engineering spectacles in all of Tokyo, the SkyTree. Before you get your hopes up and ask if I “went up to the top of the SkyTree,” no. Sorry. Not that I have a fear of heights, it’s more like having a fear of paying $30 a person to wait in line for an hour packed with tourists to see Tokyo on a poor-visibility morning. You know, that fear. Besides, you can get a good view of the city for free at the Tokyo Metropolitan building. I mostly wanted to see the SkyTree from the ground floor and look up at it. The SkyTree is also home to a massive shopping mall, so I figured we would spend a little time there too. I’ve never been to the SkyTree, nor this part of Tokyo before, so this will be interesting.

It really wasn’t all that tough to get down to the SkyTree from Nippori. We decided to take the trains, and while they may take a bit longer and require more transfers, using the city buses without an IC card is a pain. Next time I’m here, I’ll grab one for sure.

Once you arrived at the SkyTree’s Oshiage train station, you can walk directly into the SkyTree’s mall via a set of escalators. Before we hit the escalators though, we encountered an ear-piercing high-pitched squeal coming from the overhead light drivers. Guh, it’s so sharp and high pitched, it’s killing me. You could notice a visible reaction from every person under 30 walking through the same area. The underground area of Tokyo Station had the same annoying light drivers. It’s like a sonic dental drill.

Finally, outside. I wonder where the SkyTree itself is….


Yeah that’s pretty damn tall. It’s literally scraping the sky, as the very top of the tower is shrouded in clouds. Very impressive, especially for a country known for its frequent powerful earthquakes.

The SkyTree tower itself is designed to be a TV broadcasting antenna for all of Tokyo. There are also two observation decks. Would I like to see Tokyo from on top of the SkyTree? Yes, absolutely. Do I want to pay 3000 Yen a person and wait for hours to get up there? Lol no.

Yeah that’s pretty big.

So, we decided to just wander around a little. Hey, look, a little Studio Ghibli pop-up shop. Aw that’s nice. There’s lots of little things here for sale that we didn’t find at the Ghibli Museum.

Look who’s here!

…Somehow we left without buying anything. Sometimes you just have to restrain yourself and hold back you kn—


oh what is this…

wait no I thought they closed this years ago…

is it…

Oh, it most definitely is.

What??? They brought back the Kirby Cafe? This was what’s known as a “pop-up” cafe. A temporary location that centers around a pop-culture subject which artificially increases demand due to its timed exclusivity. Once their time is up, they’re usually gone for good. The Kirby Cafe first opened in 2016 and was closed about six months later, thought to never return again. I really wanted to visit it during my 2017 trip, but alas, it had closed by then.

Pat his head for luck

…Nobody ever told me that the cafe opened back up again this year about a month ago. Yeah! Oh.. well.. something tells me all the reservations are booked for months. Better check to make sure.

Yeah.. just what I thought.

Wow. Completely booked for every single day the place is open. There’s no way we’re getting in here. Sure, it was just a place selling extremely overpriced food with a cutesy video game character aesthetic, but it’s absolutely triggering my sense of FOMO, or “Fear of Missing Out.”

Kirby is the easy-to-play, comfortable video game franchise that my sister and I always play together. It’s a franchise that we both love and have always loved. The art styles, the music, the gameplay mechanics, everything. Kirby is wonderful, and here was this little pop-up cafe that celebrated the franchise that we always wanted to get into, but couldn’t because the cafe closed up shop years ago. Until it came back now, and we couldn’t get in because we were lacking reservations. Brutal.

I check once more to see if anything had magically cleared up… nope. Ugh. Oh well, let’s check out more of the SkyTree and see if we could get in later without a reservation when it’s less crowded.

The SkyTree mall was PACKED. Every store and stall was brimming with people. Also, everything here was crazy expensive. I knew this place was upscale but wow. Prices here are truly insane. I’m guessing they’re trying to grab all of that sweet, sweet tourist money.

Speaking of tourist money, look, another Pokemon center!

Yeah buddy, get’em! Rayquasa seems to be signed. Is that the VA for Pikachu?

Crowded and expensive, but these are always fun. I think I’m on track to visit every one of these places. Way more have popped up since I last visited. I’m betting the success of Pokemon Go has something to do with that. Somehow, we left without buying any more $30 stuffed animals.

Oh hey what’s up

A little more wandering through the mall brought us to the little gift-shop above the Kirby cafe. Here, you could buy lots of little goodies and doo-dads with the super tough pink puff and his pal’s faces on them. It’s not as good as the cafe, but I’ll take what I can get. I bought a CD of the cafe’s original soundtrack (Yes, they composed an original soundtrack based on the game music just for the cafe), and Abbie got a little decorative jar of star candies. We didn’t visit the cafe, but we bore witness to it and have proof of it’s existence.

Am I being overdramatic? Yes a little. I’m not upset, you’re upset.

I mean, just look at some of this stuff!

Fine. Let’s just go get some ramen or something.

We left the SkyTree after a little more shopping and headed to a ramen joint right down the street. They also served Gyudon, which sounded pretty good to me. Abbie ordered the house Ramen while I got some pork Gyudon. Moments after being seated at the noodle bar, we were served our food. Abbie said her noodles were really good! My dish, however…

The meat was tasty, the egg was fresh.. the rice? Ughk this rice was totally undercooked. I had already finished the main portion of meat, so it was too late to send the dish back, but yuck! Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever had bad rice in Japan before. Are you even allowed to mess up your staple food here? Bleh. That was a bit disappointing.

Abbie’s Ramen. Looked fine, but I’ve seen much better.

Gotta’ admit, today was a bit of a disappointment in general. The SkyTree was neat, but the overall experience was left me longing for more. Lunch was bleh. Let’s just get back to the hotel. Maybe we’ll just pickup McDonalds (which I normally hate) or something just to get a little American flavor in us to cleanse our palates again.

Some of the beautiful cherry trees lining our streets are in full bloom

After a few train rides back to the hotel, I laid on our rock-solid beds and decided to check the Kirby Cafe reservations again one last time, just for laughs. Ha… wouldn’t it be funny if there was suddenly just a time slot open?


Last second. Two people. One time slot within the dates we are still here. Tomorrow. We’re booked. The odds of that happening…

Kirby came down from his piles of money and said, “You know what… yes…. come in.. spend more, my children.”

Yeah… you know what? Today’s not so bad.

Last Call for Coffee

March 29, 2019

Last morning in Osaka. I want to pay one last visit to my new favorite coffee spot in Osaka. The owner is just so friendly and the coffee is to die for.

Abbie pointed out that she saw some people last time with jelly on their toast and was wondering if I could ask the owner for jelly on hers too. Once we were seated, we ordered the usual and I attempted to ask for jelly. I did not know what the Japanese referred to “jelly” as, so I attempted the literal translation first, ゼリー (Zeh-ree). ゼリー usually refers to a different kind of food project, most often than not, it’s just a little sweet treat often given to kids. It was not “fruit spread” which we were looking for. After a bit of back-and-forth with charades and useless Google Translate just giving me katakana translations (AKA, just turning my American English into English with a Japanese accent), Abbie had the great idea to simply show him a picture. “Ah! Strawberry Jam-u.” Yes, yes! We got it!

…Wow it’s literally just “Strawberry Jam” in Japanese, huh. Good to know.

Toast, jammed!

I explained that in some parts of the US, we call Strawberry Jam, “Jelly.” He was really amused by this fact and came back with the whole jar of strawberry jam, asking which language “Strawberry Jam” was if it wasn’t “English.” I reassured him that it was in fact still English, we just had many different words for “jam” and I didn’t know which one the Japanese would use. That was funny. I’ve never had any sort of interaction like that before and it was fun to explain the nuances of our language.

When we were finished, the owner noticed that we left our suitcases outside. He asked if we were going back to America, and I explained that we were leaving for Tokyo and would leave Japan on April 2nd. We also asked for each other’s names and he wondered what my relation to Abbie was. “Little sister!” I said. “One more time, what was your names?” Asked the owner. “Aidan and Abbie.” I said. “I will remember them.”

Awwww… Just another example of Osaka Cool.

“Sayonara” we all said as we departed. I’m saving the coordinates of this place since it’s not on Google Maps. What a great find.

The place to go

Great breakfast spot!

After breakfast, we took one last walk through the morning market shopping arcade and made our way to the train station. We needed to take a quick ride on the local loop line towards Osaka Station, then transfer to Shin-Osaka Station to get to the Shinkansen tracks.

The local loop should have taken us all the way to Osaka station, but at one stop, the train suddenly went out of service. Thanks to the old dude with the cool glasses and hat that gave us the heads up because we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.

Early morning Shinkansen tracks

A couple more trains later and we were on the Shinkansen tracks. This time, we checked-in with the office and got a seat reservation. These are free with your rail pass and will guarantee you a seat. Since this is one of the most congested lines for the Shinkansen and we were going to be traveling for over 2 and a half hours, I think it was a great choice. Standing-room only would have been such a drag.




With snacks in hand, we waited at the station for about twenty minutes before setting off towards Tokyo. Bye, Osaka. See you again next time!

Visibility was pretty poor this time around, so sadly, there wasn’t really any chance to see Fuji-san. Oh well.

Most of the journey was pretty uneventful, which is nice when you’re using public transportation. Abbie and I just stared out the window and watched Japan go by at 320 KM/H.

Buckle up! ..Wait there’s no seat belts.

After a very long train journey, we were here, back in Toky—-Oh my GOD it’s so cold! That’s something funny about the Shinkansens – You get to rapidly travel between climate zones. A nice day in Osaka might be a cold and rainy day in Tokyo.

Wow. It was really cold. But look! The cherry trees! They’re all blooming! They’re everywhere! They’re Beautiful!!

Wonderful Sakura

Brilliant white/pink trees lined nearly every street. They’re just lovely. Arriving during Hanami (Sakura blooming & viewing festival) was a complete accident, but really makes for an unforgettable experience.

Abbie and I were really hungry after our train ride though. Strawberry Jam toast can only get you so far. How about… sashimi?


Sashimi sounds nice. This is what a $12 meal looks like, by the way.

Abbie got a slightly different meal

Everything was delicious, but my favorite parts of the meal were the ones that involved the Maguro (tuna). The Japanese take their tuna very seriously and it shows. It was incredibly good.

Gochisosama deshita!

Let’s get back to the hotel and out of this cold!

This trashcan gets me pumped

Okay take it easy, razor.

Nara Deer

March 28, 2019

I wanted to do something different today. While this entire trip has been a new experience for Abbie, I’ve already done most of these things already. Not saying that they’re not awesome and aren’t worth doing multiple times, but I just wanted to share a brand new experience with Abbie. One town that I’ve never visited before was Nara. Nara (then known as “Heijo”) was the first permanent capital of Japan and was established in the year 710. Here, you will not only find original structures and temples from that era, but you will also get to experience the thousands of tranquil wild deer that roam the streets. These tiny deer are receptive to people and really like to be fed rice crackers. You can walk up to them, pet them, feed them crackers, and take in the beautiful park where most of them are at. Sounds like fun! Let’s go to Nara today!

…But first let’s grab more of that delicious coffee and toast from the coffee shop we went to yesterday. It’s just too good to pass up. After breakfast, we headed towards the train station and jumped on the local line that lead towards Nara. Nara was actually quite a ways away, so taking the local train was a mistake. Since it stopped at every station, it would take ages to get to Nara. We decided to jump-off at the half-way point and wait a couple minutes for the rapid service. Only a few moments later, we were sitting on the rapid train towards Nara and oh yeah, that’s a lot faster.

We’re here!

Right outside Nara Station

A little bit of a walk up the main street and you will encounter a massive set of temples (with insanely steep stairs!). These temples were amazing and spacious. Even if they were dumping grounds for tourist busses, there was plenty of space so it wasn’t so packed and shovy.

Conquering the steep stairs.

Featured: Abbie, ancient shrine, ancient Buddhist traffic cones

Very tall!

It’s crazy to think about the age of some of these structures. Their conditions were immaculate and everything was perfectly maintained and clean. When you’re from a country as young as the United States, you don’t really have all that much ancient historical culture.

…but where were the deer I’ve heard so much about? Just a little bit more wandering down the temple paths and… look, there’s one!

hello. do u have kra-kor?

Aw, they’re so tiny and curious. It’s neat to see deer like this since they’re usually very skittish of humans. These deer were friendly and inquisitive. Hundreds of years of associating humans with rice crackers will probably do that, but it was cute nonetheless.

Abbie says, “Hello”

The park was massive and beautiful with lots of blooming flower trees. There were thousands of deer here. It was like living in some fictitious dreamscape. Abbie and I pondered if we even really made it here or not – maybe we died somewhere along the way and this was some sort of afterlife. The setting certainly matched, but I can (mostly) assure you that we are, in-fact, still living.

See what I mean?


Dotted around the grounds were vendors selling stacks of rice crackers for 150 Yen. You actually got a decent sized stack of large crackers, so Abbie and I bought two of them throughout the course of our visit. Around the cracker vendors, though, were the hordes of opportunistic deer that would congregate around tourists that had just bought a stack. These buggers were definitely the less well-behaved deer and were a bit cheeky, but I had an idea. Bet you if I buy the crackers quickly and zip them up in my pocket before they saw them, I wouldn’t be bothered and we can move out towards the more tranquil individual deer. This theory proved successful, as I’m not sure if deer have object permanence or not. Crackers in the pocket? Gone from existence.

We decided to walk pretty far out from the cracker vendors and the main tourist paths and wander a little bit into the forest. Here, the deer were a little more dispersed, so it was easy to handle one or two at a time. It was funny though, at first you see only one deer, but as soon as the rice crackers come out, three of them would appear out of nowhere.

If you hold your hand up and slowly bow, the deer will respectfully bow to you as well. They’ve been trained to bow dating all the way back to the original ancient Buddhist monks that once, and still do, populate this city.

You can see this behavior at the 0:27 mark in the video down below when I fed them:

The deer are kind and gentle, for the most part. Sometimes they’re a little cheeky and will give your clothes a little tug for attention or will boop your hands, but generally speaking, they’re very friendly. Just don’t let them see where you hide your crackers! If you’re lucky, they will briefly let you pet them. They are very, very soft. They feel like stuffed animals, but with slightly coarse fur.

You know she’s thinking about it.

Only a moment later, the deer bows. I think it’s either saying, “Nah, we cool.” or “Give kra-kor.” Maybe both.

But how did he get to the island? By hopping on little stone outcrops!

The grounds were just starting to bloom


Watchu’ want

Time to shed

This park is vast. Nice to have some space for once. This image only shows a very tiny corner of it.

Abbie and I spent some time in the forest and fed some more deer. A man walked up and watched in the distance. I offered him one of my rice crackers since it looked like he was interested and didn’t have any. After letting him feed the deer that we had congregated and taking some photos, we asked each other where we were from. China and America. Opposite ends of the earth. Brought together by feeding some deer.

A deer from earlier scampers through the park

As we walked back to the train station after our day in the deer park, we noticed that one of the deer appeared to be running away with somebody’s map. Stinker. We rescued the map and returned it to a group of people who were now sad that a third of their map was missing. I asked if their destination still existed on the map. “Yeah,” they said. I then explained to them that they now have a free souvenir and we laughed it off while the cheeky deer gnawed on its third of the map. An even cheekier deer decided that it would like to stuff its entire head into Abbie’s coat pocket. Thankfully, she had nothing in there to steal. I wish I had a photo of it because it was pretty funny.

The towns mascot, Shikamara-kun. You see this little guy everywhere in Nara. Here are some human-edible crackers with his face on it in a 7/11 store.

We eventually made it back to the station where we caught the rapid train line back towards Osaka. Tonight, we actually had a reservation for Kani Doraku, the famous crab restaurant in Dotonbori. Well… so we thought. As we arrived in Dotonbori and waited for our reservation in a nearby cafe, I noticed that we were actually scheduled for yesterday. What? The calendar says it’s today. Nope. For whatever reason, only for this calendar event, it was basing the date on pacific standard time. ….WHY?!

Okay well.. that totally sucks. We were looking forward to that. If it’s any reconciliation though, I think the time we spent having dinner at that secret izakaya last night was a pretty unforgettable experience, so I wouldn’t change that for anything. Still though, for someone that puts a lot of time into double-checking (see: quadruple checking) as many details of the trip as possible, it’s a bit disappointing that a technical mishap ruined one of the few set plans we had. Oh well, what can you do?

…Eat takoyaki from a street food vendor, of course. Duh.

Nuclear fireballs of delicious

Hot, fresh, puff-pastry balls filled with tender octopus and slathered in sweet & savory sauce. Each batch is topped with chives and kombu fish flakes. Be careful! Don’t eat them right when you get them as you risk total mouth incineration! …It’s very hard not to just dive right in, because these things look, smell, and taste so delicious.

The stand we went to was very tiny and had a single standing table underneath it’s roof. Everyone at the stand shared this table, which gave us an opportunity to chat with another American visiting from Tennessee. He explained to us that since he was Asian, he was always assumed to be and understand Japanese, even though he didn’t. I explained that I had the opposite problem. I understood how to speak and understand the language, but because of my appearance, everyone assumes that I do not. Just the way it goes, I guess. It’s pretty fun to meet people from all around the US as well – our country is so big that it’s almost like meeting a foreigner from another country, but you both speak the same language and you’re both on the same team!

🎵 Osaka! 🎶 Tako-yaki! 🎶 Dotonburi 🎵 …sings the five minute infinite loop jingle that was playing at the Takoyaki stand we were at. I wonder if this drives the employees crazy.

After our eight pieces of takyoyaki, we still wanted something hot and soupy to cut through the freezing cold wind. We walked around a little bit and… ooohh… Udon noodle soup. Abbie hasn’t had this yet… Let’s get a bowl!

Mmmm.. Big noodle

We punch-in our selections to the vending machine and plop our tickets on the counter. Moments later we were given two bowls of tempura udon. This looks and smells so good. It was delicious and just what we needed to curb the cold.

After our improvised dinner, we took the same subway back home as we did last time. I neglected to take any photos of the really cool shopping arcade we wandered through at night. It’s crazy atmospheric in here. It’s really hard to capture the aesthetic of the place with a photo.

Food stalls are still open. Even though we are full, they smell so good.

Lots of dark, somewhat spooky, halls. It feels like you’re not supposed to be in here, but it’s fine.

Late-night snacks

This part of town has a ton of character and it has really grown on me. It feels like a movie set. If only we had more time to experience it all. Next time.

Smaller Business

March 27, 2019

Recharged and ready. Time for Osaka.

I’m sure you’re well-aware of my disdain for tourist traps (even though I seem to find myself in them all the time. I like the Pokemon center, OK?). Sometimes though, you do have to journey into the thick of it in order to enjoy some of the iconic scenes and structures found within the country you’re visiting. Today, I’d like to take Abbie to visit Osaka Castle and the famous Dotonbori street for dinner.

But first: I need some coffee. As much as I like the crappy cheap canned stuff, I wanted some coffee. Since we’re in a quiet residential area away from the chaos that is central Osaka, I was certain that there would be a little homely coffee shop around here.

…And right I was.

THICC toast, hard-boiled eggs, perfect coffee

Right down the street from where we were staying, right next to the old shopping arcade was a little coffee shop ran by a single humble man. This was very much a local coffee spot filled with people that live in the area. After we were served, the owner asked “Where are you from?” “Yes.” I replied. I misheard him at first and thought he was asking if we wanted sugar. He clarified and.. Ohhh… “Where are we from?”

“America-jin desu” (We’re Americans). “Welcome to Japan” he replies. Aw, that’s nice. It’s very rare to find people that are interested in where you’re from and will actually ask you. In general, you’ll never really be inquired for anything, especially in the bigger cities. Since we were in a little local coffee shop away from the bigger tourist areas though, we had a little more room to breathe and I think that reflected in the local’s curiosity towards us. It’s quite refreshing honestly.

Anyways, the coffee he served was perfect. When I say perfect, I mean it was a perfect cup of coffee how did you make this it’s so good. Brilliantly smooth, rich flavor, no acidity (nice, m’kay). The thick-cut toast was so soft and coated in perfectly salty butter. The hard-boiled egg was also perfect. I am 100% coming back here tomorrow morning. I really enjoyed that coffee and the owner was super nice too. If you’re ever in Japan, find your way over to the smaller businesses instead of massive chains and tourist joints. It takes a little bravery, but you will be rewarded with tastier food and more genuine experiences.

We paid our bill (only 700 yen for both of us!) and set off through the shopping arcade towards our train station. The arcade was just waking up and all the morning markets just started to put out all of their goods.

I want (good) trains at home so badly

Let’s head to Osaka castle and explore the grounds a little before stopping in and grabbing some lunch near the area.

Look what’s off in the distance!

Getting closer

After a billion stairs, there it is!

Abbie has a series of photos where she T-poses in interesting places. The reaction of the man to her lower right sums up everything.

Inside of the castle is a museum full of art and artifacts from the 17th century. Really neat stuff, so let’s just go and grab a ticket and.. oh.. oh my god.

THE HORDES ARE HERE. It was Sakura (cherry blossom) season and the trees were just beginning to bloom. This will result in two things: Wonderfully beautiful trees filled with delicate pink/white flowers, and unbelievable amounts of pushy-shovy tourists in crowded places. I already know that the inside of the castle is crowded since I visited it last time, but this time, the line just for the tickets was wrapping around the building. Nope, not happening. There are better things to appreciate.

Let’s get away from the suffocating crowds. I know a little secret place here.

A secret place with a view and a new bird friend

There was a local artist drawing the castle from a distance with charcoal, colored pencils, and water colors. Beautiful. Up where we were, there was nearly zero people. Peaceful.

We stayed up top here for a little while before we saw a tourist flag of death. Holy crap like 100 people swarmed in behind their flag carrier and unapologetically blocked the view of the person that was painting in peace. Guys seriously wtf? Alright, I’ve had enough of this, let’s get out of here.

We waited for the horde to take their photos and clear out, then we made our way to the exit on the opposite side from where we came in. At the same time, my parents, who were celebrating their 25th anniversary (Yay! Congratulations!!) at Disney World were sending us photos of their special sushi dinner at Epcot’s Japanese restaurant. It looked really, really, good and that toast we had for breakfast was burning off fast. Let’s go find some sushi too!

A little walking later and we arrived to a bustling sushi shop serving up lunch specials as fast as they could. I’ve never been to a place where you’re served like this before. Immediately, the waiter came up to us with two pre-prepared meals, one was sashimi donburi while the other was a sushi assortment. It looked like she just had someone else’s meal and was just demonstrating what the two lunch specials looked like. No, what she was actually doing was saying “pick one and you’ll get it right now.”

Once we figured that out, we had a sushi set within literal seconds. Woah.

Delicious fishes

While the sushi was good (excellent by American standards), it was definitely not the best I’ve had in Japan. It felt rushed and the rice wasn’t packed very well. The wasabi factor was also cranked up to 12. Normally, I can resist wasabi just fine but god my nose was obliterated. Not bad fish and cheap as all get out. About $12 for both Abbie and I with Miso soup and tea. Nice!

We walked around a little, further and further away from the castle. Away from the noise. Away from the crowds. Hm, I think I remember this area – I’m pretty sure there is a park here.

Yeah, here it is. Quiet, peaceful… and full of newly blooming cherry trees (not being pulled apart this time!)


Tiny cherry flower

It’s nice to spend a little quiet time watching the world go by.

After about 20 minutes or so, we decided to take the long-way through Osaka back towards the JR station. We could have just used the metro, but sometimes it’s fun to just walk around town. We really have gotten better weather than we could have ever asked for. Mild weather with very little rain (and it only snowed at the Ryokan which was AWESOME). Couldn’t have asked for anything better.

We arrived back at the apartment and rested up a little.

…Let’s go to the Pokemon center at Osaka Station. Why do I do this to myself? Oh I know, the pursuit of overpriced merchandise with a bunch of cute fantasy animals on it. Worth it. I’ve had my fill on merch (I think), but Abbie was on the hunt for a Lucario plushie, so I couldn’t deny her that. We headed off to the MASSIVE Osaka Station shopping complex and made our way up to the thirteenth floor. There was a massive bridge over all of the train tracks with a “popup” artificial park laid out.


Packed, crazy, loud, chaotic. But they had Lucario so it was worth it.

Rowlet: One of the very best

I’m hungry again. Let’s hit up Dotonbori Street for dinner. I already knew that this place was going to be a crowded nightmare, but it’s one of those supremely iconic areas that Abbie just has to see with her own eyes.

We also got to experience rush-hour trains in Japan. Squishy.


Freedom from the subways

Getting closer (look at the sea of people)

Closer still

Not quite ready yet. Check back in five.

Oh yeah, there he is

Some say “Blade runner.” I say, “It’s just Japan”

Subliminal messaging? More like superliminal messaging.

Super cool looking, but oh man these crowds. Guh.

Okay, so, all of these shops and stalls, even though I bet you they’re pretty good, are PACKED with lines, lines, and more lines of flag-groups. Yeah, no. Thanks but no thanks.

I know what to do.

Head down some of the side streets. Find alleyways that lead into seemingly nowhere. That’s where you’ll find the real deal. You see, most of these tourists are here to grab a photo and that’s about it. Move away from the less photogenic part of town and the crowds dissipate almost immediately. The character of all the buildings swap from flashy and loud, to low-key and genuine. Rust. A sure sign of the real world.

Only moments later, we find an empty izakaya with a single older man just waiting for customers and watching some TV. I slide open the door and ask him if he’s open. Sure enough, we’re immediately welcomed in, one-on-one. This was gonna be awesome. He gives us the menu and we only had to ponder over it for a few seconds to know what we wanted. In goes our order and he gets to work, freshly slicing and seasoning the meat he was going to serve to us. A few minutes later, he stepped outside and brought in our own little charcoal grill which he fired up when we arrived. AWESOME.

Hard to beat this.

The meat, was of course, to die for. Carefully seasoned, rich and flavorful with a dipping sauce he prepared right in front of us. The owner was soft-spoken, but very polite and appreciated our ability to communicate in Japanese. The chicken was so delicious that I had to get another round of it. He discounted the price by 200 yen – aw man thanks! He also was preparing soup when we arrived, and had just finished chopping up the green onion that would adorn it. He gave us two bowls of it free of charge and it was SO delicious. Light onion soup with bits of beef and fresh green onion. So light and tasty.

This was so nice. Away from the craziness and way more genuine. Always remember to stray off the beaten path and find something special for yourself. It will be worth it and you’re supporting small businesses.

“Gochisosama deshta,” Abbie and I exclaim after our meal. He saw us out with a smile and we were on our way back to the apartment. After another crowded train ride, we hopped out at a different station and decided to walk through the massive shopping arcade alleys at night. It seems spooky – almost like a theme park attraction, but since the crime rate in Japan is virtually nonexistent, you’re completely safe. This maze-like arcade twisted its way throughout the community. You could see late night food vendors selling their goods among the hundreds of shuttered stalls. The smoky atmosphere provided some awesome dramatic mood lighting for the area. It really does feel like you’re in a movie.

After about ten minutes of walking through that maze of stalls, we emerged to our main street.

The unassuming entrance to a massive shopping arcade in the dark

This part of town has a cool nighttime atmosphere.

There’s even a Takoyaki street stall right in front of our apartment. Yeah, we’re gonna have to check that out. I love Osaka.

Osaka Cool

March 26, 2019

Today, we were going to visit my favorite city in Japan: Osaka. Don’t get me wrong, Tokyo is cool, but Osaka is cool.

Not only is Osaka cool, it’s also delicious. Osaka has garnered the well-earned reputation of being known as “Japans-kitchen,” and I whole-heartedly agree. This city is a culinary wonderland home to some of the best food in the world.

…But first, we had to get there.

The main street in Kyoto outside of our hotel in the morning

Osaka is very easy to get to from Kyoto – The two cities are only about thirty minutes apart and there are several train lines that go between the two. I simply punched-in where we wanted to go into Google maps, selected the route that preferred JR lines, and bam. Local trains leaving from Kyoto station that would take us directly to Osaka station. Easy.

After hopping on a few quick subways down towards Kyoto Station, we soon arrived and began looking at the time-tables for the fastest train to Osaka. This was also the first time Abbie got to see the immense glass roof at the front of Kyoto Station – it really is a sight to behold.

Photo Credit. Kyoto Station looks like this! In my haste, I didn’t grab a photo.

A quick (and crowded) standing-room only train ride later and we were in Osaka. This little local line is really great if you want to see a little bit of the semi-rural/industrial split between Osaka and Kyoto. It takes you over big rivers, gives you a view of Kobe from a distance, and even takes you through a bit of both cities. Once we arrived in Osaka, Abbie pointed out that every major station is essentially just a big shopping mall and yes, this is in-fact the truth. Nearly every major train station in Japan is its own metropolitan hub and Osaka was no exception. In front of us was a MASSIVE wall of shops and restaurants going up as far as the eye could see. Somewhere in that massive wall of shops is another Pokemon center… we’ll see if we can find it later. For now though, let’s find our next accommodation.

All we had to do was take the local Osaka loop to our destination station. Thankfully, this local loop is operated by JR, so we can finally use our rail passes again. Kyoto operates with many different private rail companies, meaning that it gets a little pricey to move yourself around even if you have a JR rail pass.

This little local loop is similar to the Yamanote line in Tokyo. Each train takes you all around the city. Since our stop was at the complete opposite end of the city, it gave us a chance to take in a few of the sights. I love Osaka – it’s got a certain charm that you can’t really find anywhere else. That perfect blend of old and new. It’s like Jazz Fusion (playing in the music video above), but in city-form.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination station (that sounds like a cool band name). It led straight into another shopping arcade. This time, it was a bit more “local.” Less crazy flashy shops, a bit narrower, a bit older. There was lots of local produce for sale as well as tons fresh-caught fish. This was more of a grocery arcade where local growers and farmers sold their goods. Everything looked so fresh. We had to drop off our bags before we did anything, though. They’re a real nuisance in the streets of Japan.

After a little bit of wandering around through the local neighborhoods, we found our destination. This time, it was going to be an AirBnB-type accommodation. Our own little apartment in the middle of Osaka for the next few days. Last time I visited Japan, I stayed in an apartment for just one night and it was AWESOME. Not only do you get way more room in general, but you get all the accommodations of a real home AND they’re usually far cheaper than hotel rooms. There is a bit of a risk when booking things like this though, as you never know if an AirBnB could cancel on you or not (plus there are no refunds once you are booked!), but if you play your cards right, it’s a real treat.

After faffing about for about 30 minutes trying to figure out what our door unlock code was (they never sent it to me, so I had to wait for them to reply to my request for it), we were finally in. Whoah. This place was awesome! So much space!

What did we decide to do during our first-night’s stay? Order pizza and do absolutely nothing. It sounds like a waste of a day, but this is the best part about traveling without any real schedule. Do whatever you want. Tired from all the traveling around? Take a day off to recharge. Why did we decide to go with pizza for our first meal within “the kitchen of Japan?” Well, think of it this way: Japan has some of the best food in the world. Taste is subjective, but let’s be real, Japan has objectively fantastic food. BUT. It’s all “Japanese food.” While this seems self-evident, let me explain: In America, we’re super spoiled for choice when it comes to flavor variety. The same diversity that gives us a unique blend of cultures and people also gives us near limitless choices for flavor. But here, nearly all food has that same Japanese taste profile. It’s wonderful, but it’s akin to going to the same restaurant every single day. Eventually, you crave something with a different texture and flavor profile. That’s what these pizzas were for. Something a little bread-y, salty, pizza-y to cleanse our palette to prepare for Osaka’s brilliant cooking.

…And they were awesome, too.

These pizzas were so good. I love Japanese style pizza so much. One thing that caught me off-guard though: the price. Wow, these two tiny pizzas were $50, Jesus. That’s one of the most expensive meals we’ve had so far. Oh well, it’s worth it for the experience. Plus, delivery is “free” (baked into the price) and since there is no tipping here (YES. SO NICE), you don’t have to worry about that either.

After the pizzas, Abbie and I just sat around catching up on our overflowing YouTube subscriptions and just watched some TV. It was comfy. This apartment also finally featured some squishy beds. This was really awesome since all of our hotel beds so far have been the standard Japanese “board of plywood with a sheet over it” kind of deal. Nice. Let’s get some rest for tomorrow.