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Temples & Shrines (How to) February 7, 2012

Posted by Dru in Japan, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Temples & Shrines (How to)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-IE

Visiting a temple or a shrine in Japan is a very common thing.  It is very cheap as they usually don’t charge you any money to visit.  The biggest challenge comes in what to do when you do visit a shrine, and learning the differences.  The first thing to learn is the differences between a temple and a shrine.  The basic difference is the religion.  A temple is generally associated with Buddhism and a shrine is associated with Shintoism.  Shinto is a Japanese religion that worships various deities and people.  Buddhism and Shintoism had been intertwined since Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the late 600s.  In the 1800s, during the Meiji Restoration period, the two religions were split and Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines were no longer allowed to function as one unit.  This split can easily be seen in various locations around Japan where you will see a major Buddhist temple and a small Shinto shrine next to it.  The opposite also occurs.  This makes it very difficult to differentiate between the two and even scholars can have a difficult time if all the information was removed.  The easiest way, aside from reading the name, is to look inside the main hall.  If you see a Buddhist statue, you are in a temple.  If you see an elaborate room with gold leaf or other things scattered about, you are probably in a shrine.  This is not to say all temples and shrines are like this, but it is an easy way to guess which one is which if you don’t know the name or kanji to differentiate the two.

Before entering a temple or shrine, you are greeted by a large font of water and ladles.  This is the purification, or washing, font.  It is a simple task where you must wash yourself to become pure.  It is akin to dipping your fingers in the holy water and making a sign of the cross as you enter a Christian church.  The process is a little different.  The strict rules state that you grab a ladle by your right hand, fill it with water and proceed to rinse your left hand followed by the right.  Be sure to pour the water into the trough and not back into the font.  I’m sure I must have done this by mistake the first time.  Put a little water into your left hand and slurp it up.  You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to, and you can spit it out into the trough next to the font.  Afterwards, rinse your left hand again and place the ladle in its original location.  It is a very simple process that takes seconds to do but can mystify people who have never seen it or prepared for it before.  I remember my first time doing this and I had no clue as to what to do.  Even Japanese people don’t know the “proper” way to do it.  The best thing to do is just rinse your hands and finish up.  I don’t recommend drinking the water, although it is usually safe to do so.  I do put the water in my mouth but I never drink it.  There is also no obligation to doing this every time.  Think of it as if you enter a church.  If there is holy water, you don’t have to dip your fingers in it, but to be respectful to the religion, you should.

The prayer is where things get more complicated and diverse.  In a temple, you generally only have a prayer offering box.  When you go to a shrine, things can change a little.  Shrines tend to have a type of noise maker over the offering box.  It is typically either a gong or a rattle of some sort.  The gong and rattle are located near the roof and a large rope is connected to it.  When praying, the first step is to throw your money into the box.  To be lucky, you should use a coin that has a hole in it.  In Japan, 5 and 50 yen coins are lucky.  500 yen is good too, but I feel it isn’t as lucky as there is no hole in the actual coin.  Once the money is in the box, you can shake the rope and make some noise.  If there is no rope, you can skip this step.  Take a step back if necessary and bow 2 times, followed by clapping 2 times.  After the second clap, keep your hands together and make a prayer or wish.  Bow one more time and you are finished.  Most Japanese people aren’t religious, rather they are more superstitious than anything else.  They tend to pray for luck and money but most people don’t actually believe in the religion they are praying to.  It’s similar to having a lucky doll when writing a test.

Japanese people can act very superstitious about religion.  You can purchase a variety of lucky amulets from temples and shrines that will protect you on a journey, bring you good health, or help you with a test.  While some temples will offer lucky amulets, the amulets are almost always exclusive to shrines.  Most of these amulets are good for one year, after which they need to be “recharged”.  Many people will purchase one each year and return it to the shrine they purchased it from.  If you want to recharge it, you must go to the original shrine you bought it from, which can make things a little difficult if you are just visiting Japan or you purchase it from a small shrine in a remote location.  Some people do return to the original temple but the majority don’t.  If you don’t want the amulet anymore, especially if the power has run out, you can return it to any shrine, especially during the new year’s festivities.  They usually have large boxes where you can toss your lucky amulets in for recycling or ritual burning.  Be sure that you don’t open the amulets or the power can either run out or turn to bad luck.  I have heard stories, first hand, of people having their amulets opened as they travel through airport security.  Think of asking a Hindu to take off their turban.  Opening a lucky amulet, in a religious sense, is similar to taking off a turban or even a hijab.

Both temples and shrines have “omikuji” or fortunes.  These are pieces of paper that tell you if you have good or bad luck, and to what degree.  There are roughly 9 levels.  There are 3 each for good luck, bad luck, and mixed luck.  The most interesting way to get your luck is a sort of lottery system.  There is a large container that is either cylindrical or hexagonal in shape.  You shake this and try to get a stick through a small hole at the top.  Once you get a stick, it will have a number on it.  That number will tell you which fortune you can receive.  Sometimes they have a letter instead.  Put the stick back into the container and pick up your fortune from the corresponding drawer.  Unfortunately, most fortunes are in Japanese only, but a few places such as Sensoji in Asakusa have Englilsh fortunes.  The other way to get a fortune is to dig around a box.  Some shrines have boxes where you can dig through many fortunes and hope you get a good one.  You can also get them from vending machines, but there isn’t much fun in that.  Once you get your fortune, you have to tie it somewhere in the temple or shrine.  There are usually racks where you can do this or a tree where many others have done the same.  You can easily find the location by looking around the temple or shrine.  For those who have the best luck possible, you actually put it in your wallet and keep it for a year.  The reasoning for leaving the fortune at the shrine is to prevent the bad luck from following you home, although with any good luck, I don’t see the point in leaving it there.

Leaving the shrine is much easier.  Look at the exit and walk that way.  There are actually a lot of things you can do at the temples and shrines that most people don’t know about.  Most temples and shrines offer personalized writing and stamps.  It is relatively unknown but you can buy a special stamp book from any temple or shrine and pay a small fee for one of the priests to write the name of the shrine and put the official stamp inside the book.  This book is a record of your pilgrimage to visit various temples and shrines around Japan.  It makes a great souvenir as well, even if you can’t read it properly.  Making notes of this is good enough.  You can also buy are prayer beads or rosaries.  These are available at Buddhist temples only.  Unfortunately I am not familiar with how they work, but they are a nice accessory.  As I said, there are many other things you can do, and even I am constantly discovering new things about temples and shrines.  For a typical tourist, the information here is more than enough to keep you satisfied.  For a resident, just enjoy the adventure.

Shrine and Temple Information:

General Information:  http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/pilgrimages-pilgrims-japan.html
Another account into Stamp Books:  http://japanlifeandreligion.com/2010/04/12/tales-of-a-buddhist-pilgrim-me/

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

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Temples of Tokyo – Part I [Sensoji] February 9, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Temples of Tokyo – Part I [Sensoji]” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-gh

When people think of Japanese temples, they think of Kyoto.  Not everyone has a chance to go to Kyoto.  If you only have a week in Japan, sometimes you can’t afford the time to go to Kyoto.  While it can be done in a day using the shinkansen, sometimes it’s much better to just relax and visit a few temples around Tokyo.  That way, you can take your time and save a lot of money on train fares.  In Tokyo, most tourists will only visit two temples; Sensoji in Asakusa, and Meiji Jingu in Harajuku.  Technically, Meiji Jingu is not a temple, but a shrine dedicated to the Japanese religion of Shinto.  Often overlooked is the temple called Zojoji.  It is much smaller than the other two, but due to it being left off most major tour books, it’s a great place to see a temple without the hustle and bustle of the other two tourist spots.

The first things to know when talking about temples and shrines are, what is a temple, and what is a shrine?  In a few simple words, a temple is dedicated to Buddha and a shrine is dedicated to a Shinto god.  It can be very difficult to know which is which, but in Japan, the easiest way to tell the difference is to look for the torii.  If there is a torii gate, a wooden archway near the entrance, it’s a shrine.  If there is a pagoda, or a huge statue of a Buddhist deity, it’s a temple.  In reality, there is no easy way to distinguish one from the other without research or looking at everything extensively.  Generally speaking, once you see a few of the temples and shrines, you tend to understand what the others will look like.  After visiting the these three temples in Tokyo, you don’t have to visit Kyoto, but as always, things are always slightly different, or they might have that one unique factor that makes it stand out.  Kyoto is still a very important place in Japan, and it’s still highly recommended.  If you don’t have time to make it out there, don’t feel too sad, but if you do have time, I would always recommend heading there.

Sensoji is probably the most visited temple in Tokyo, and the oldest.  When arriving at Asakusa station, it’s very easy to get disoriented.  They have finished some remodelling of the station to make it easier for people to find their way to the temple, but once you are on the street, you can still be a little disoriented.  Finding your way to Nakamise Shopping Street is the best way to get to the temple.  There is a large Buddhist style gate called Kaminarimon, with two large wooden statues inside protecting the temple.  This is the start of the shopping street, and the approach to the temple itself.  The shopping street is great for the usual souvenirs that you’ll need when you go home, so be sure to buy everything here.  Other areas of Tokyo don’t always offer this type of touristy garb.  You can easily buy rice crackers and yukatas, along with other cheesy Japanese stuff.  Do note that most Japanese people will only buy food, and rarely, if ever, buy the other stuff.  The temple itself is beautifully bathed in red paint.  Being a big tourist attraction, you can buy an “Omikuji”, which is a fortune.  They generally include English.  First, put your money into the donation box; then shake a large metal tin.  After shaking, turn the tin upside down and shake it until you get a stick.  This stick tells you which drawer to open to get your fortune.  It’s pretty simple and once you are there, you can watch others do it first and just copy them.  They should have English on the reverse of the fortune, or a translation somewhere nearby.  Do note that if you get one with okay, or bad luck, you are supposed to tie it to a post so that it doesn’t follow you.  If you have good luck, you are supposed to keep it in your wallet for one year.  Next, you can enter the temple itself.  There really isn’t much to see.  When you enter, you can only stay in the front entrance portion of the main hall.  Here, you can toss some money into the donation box and pray for whatever you like.  Also note that it’s better to throw a coin with a hole in it as it’s considered lucky.  5 and 50 yen coins are the only coins to have a hole in them.

This is Part I of a two part series.  To continue reading about the Temples of Tokyo, continue to Part II.

Information:

http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2058.html (About Temples)
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sensō-ji (About Sensoji)
http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3001.html (More about Sensoji)

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Tokyo (Asakusa – Part I) January 12, 2010

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Tokyo, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Tokyo (Asakusa – Part I)” complete with photos.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-ke

Asakusa is one of the must see places in Tokyo.  For any resident, however, it’s a place to avoid, unless you live in the area.  It’s a typical tourist location.  There is really only one thing to do in the area, but it can take up to half a day to complete it.  Asakusa itself is one of the oldest entertainment districts in Tokyo, and one of the oldest neighbourhoods.  If you take the Shitamachi bus line from Tokyo Station, you will essentially be travelling in the oldest areas of Tokyo once you reach Ueno.  You can see some of the oldest houses in the area if you know where to look.  You can also enjoy the beautiful Sensoji temple or shopping for very kitsch souvenirs.  Be aware that this being a tourist trap, you may want to keep a closer eye on your wallets and purses.  It can get very busy, which can bring out the pickpockets.  Do note that this is still Japan, so the chances of a pickpocket are still extremely low.

The best thing to do when arriving in Asakusa is to get there early, say 9 or 10am and head straight for Sensoji.  Head to exit 1 from the Ginza line and A4 from the Asakusa line.  From here, you can head straight to Kaminarimon, or Kaminari Gate.  This is the main entrance to Sensoji, and Nakamise Shopping Arcade.  This gate will be very busy and any pictures are sure to include other tourists.  This spot is also popular for hiring rickshaws.  Prices can vary and they are all eager to take you around the streets for a private tour.  Prices start at 5000 Yen for one person, for 30 minutes, 8000 Yen for two people, all the way up to 30,000 Yen for over 2 hours.  These people can be very colourful, but do your best to find someone who can speak English, at least a little, so that you can understand the history of the area better.  The gate itself is fairly large and lit up at night.  There are four large statues located within the gate.  The two facing the street are Shinto gods, while the opposing two are Buddhist gods.  While these are not the most fascinating statues in Japan, they are the easiest to access and it provides a taste of what you can see in other areas of Japan.

Once past the gate, you will be within the Nakamise Shopping Arcade area.  This area is where tourists tend to buy everything.  You can get things from key chains, head bands that say “Japan” with the rising sun logo, and even yukatas.  While you may think you are buying a kimono, do note that you are more than likely buying a basic yukata.  There are a few shops selling these clothes and they can be very beautiful.  It may not have a traditional print, but for most tourists, it’s still very popular.  You may even get a small deal if you buy a few of them as gifts.  If you are looking for real kimono, you would be looking at spending at least 100,000 Yen for a very basic one.  About half way up the street, there is a small branch leading to Shin-nakamise Shopping Arcade.  This one offers a more modern style shopping and it feels like you are in a smaller Japanese city.  There are shoe shops, drug stores, and various restaurants and snack shops.  It’s worth a quick romp, but do note that things probably won’t open until 10am.  Towards the end of Nakamise, there are lots of food shops selling Dorayaki, a pancake like sandwich with sweet red bean paste inside, and senbe, a Japanese rice cracker.  These places aren’t the cheapest, but they are very good and made fresh.  I’d suggest buying some if you want to try traditional Japanese junk food.

This is Part I of a II part series.  Please continue reading about Asakusa in Part II.

Asakusa Information:

Asakusa (Japan Guide):  http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3004.html
Asakusa (Wikipedia):  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asakusa
Asakusa (Wikitravel):  http://wikitravel.org/en/Tokyo/Asakusa
Asakusa (English):  http://www.asakusa-e.com/index_e.html
Asakusa (Japanese):  http://www.asakusa-e.com/index.html
Rickshaw Information (Japanese):  http://www.jidaiya.biz/kanko-j.html
Tokyo Shitamachi Bus:  http://www.kotsu.metro.tokyo.jp/english/bus_guide.html

Nikko (Part II) June 2, 2009

Posted by Dru in Japan, Kanto, Travel.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Nikko (Part II)” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-aV

After going to Rinnoji, it’s a short walk up a hill to reach Toshogu. Toshogu is the main attraction in Nikko. It is a large, fantastic, complex with intricate designs throughout. Upon entering the temple grounds, you’ll be greeted by the typical torii gate, but also a large pagoda. Rinnoji is a fairly traditional Japanese temple, simple. Toshogu is the polar opposite. The main pagoda has been likened to Chinese and Korean style temples. Lots of colour and various statues of animals adorn the rafters. This creates a very interesting style where people either love it or hate it. Many people have hated this because it isn’t “Japanese”, but that is a completely different argument altogether. However, upon entering the paid area of Toshogu, you’ll see a huge crowd of people gathering around a plain wooden building. It is very small compared to the surrounding buildings and it looks somewhat out of place. This is the famous Three Wise Monkeys (Hear no evil, Speak no evil, See no evil) building. It is the most famous image of Nikko. Three Wise Monkeys are three monkeys, one covering his ears, one covering his mouth, and one covering his eyes. There are other carvings around the building featuring monkeys in other situations, but by far, the Three Wise Monkeys are the most popular. From here, you will see a few black and gold structures along with several carvings of various exotic animals.

There are several carvings of peacocks and some of elephants. Unfortunately, the elephants look nothing like an elephant, and several sculptures looked scary. Towards the back of the complex, you will see pretty much the same. There is a second area featuring the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, for which Toshogu was built. The cost to enter is expensive, so I never bothered to enter. There is another famous carving of a sleeping cat, but I didn’t feel it was worth the extra 800 Yen. The last place to visit within the shrine is Yakushido Hall. It is a small building which can have lots of people lining up to enter. Within the main room, there is a painting of a dragon on the ceiling. One of the priests/monks will give an explanation about the hall and how banging two sticks of wood in the right place will allow you to hear the dragon’s cry. He will demonstrate that if you away from the centre, the two sticks will sound like normal. However, when he bangs the sticks in the right location within the room, it will echo and resonate to sound like a dragon’s cry. It was a very interesting demonstration, but pictures and video aren’t allowed.

After visiting Toshogu, you can head over to Futarasan and Taiyuinbyo.  Taiyuinbyo is another mausoleum, but this time it was built for Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson.  It is smaller in scale, and it isn’t as busy as Toshogu.  It isn’t as spectacular, but just as intricate.  There are more Shinto gods guarding the area, and it’s location at the base of a mountain makes it very picturesque.  I personally enjoyed this shrine more than Toshogu, but I was let down a little as many things were undergoing renovations.  After visiting Toshogu, however, there isn’t much to say about these two shrines.  They are typical shrines without anything extremely new or interesting to talk about.

I would highly recommend that you rent a car when you go to Nikko. It is the easiest way to get to the distant locations, and you’ll have the freedom to head up to Lake Chuzenji. However, there are buses that head up and down the mountain to Lake Chuzenji, but you’ll be limited to when you can go. The road up to Lake Chuzenji is called Irohazaka. This road is famous among driving enthusiasts and street racers as it was featured in the anime/manga Initial D. The name is derived from the 48 hairpin corners that made up the original road. Iroha is the name of the 48 letters of the Japanese alphabet. Currently, there are two roads going to Lake Chuzenji. Both are one way. One heads up, the other down. Going up this road, there are two lanes. You’ll be able to see a few exotic cars and some motorcycles as they race uphill. Going downhill, there is only one lane, but you’ll see the same cars, only they’ll be going much slower than before. This road is also extremely famous in the autumn season as the leaves turn a bright red, orange, and yellow. It’s not uncommon for this road to be backed up, taking three or four times longer to travel than other season.

Lake Chuzenji itself isn’t that spectacular. Near the end of the uphill portion of Irohazaka, you can pay to take the gondola up to a lookout point. From here, you will be given beautiful views of Nikko, Lake Chuzenji, and Kegon Falls. Around the lake, you can do all of the normal things you would do at any lake. Swimming and taking a “swan boat” onto the water is popular. There are also many shops in the area that let you try Nikko’s famous food, tofu “skin”. Beware that during the winter months, most of the shops are closed due to the lack of visitors. The main attraction would have to be Kengon Falls. Standing at 98 metres tall, this waterfall is one of the tallest in Japan. Taking the elevator to the base of the waterfall is recommended as you may be able to see some Japanese mountain goats and you can have a better view of the falls. Note that in the winter months, it’s extremely cold, so dress warmly.

If you decide to spend a day or two in Nikko, hiking around Lake Chuzenji is very famous, and there are various hot springs in the area. Kinugawa is a famous hot spring resort town that is a short drive from Nikko. You may also be able to see a few monkeys running around. Beware that the monkeys can be aggressive, so keep a little distance and be aware of them if they are coming towards you.

Note:  This is part II of a II part series.  Please return to Part I for the first half of this post.

このblogは英語のblog。もし私の英語は難しい、日本語のquestionは大丈夫。

Happy New Year January 1, 2009

Posted by Dru in Uncategorized.
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Author’s Note:  Dru’s Misadventures has moved to HinoMaple.  Please venture on over there to read “Happy New Year” complete with pictures.  http://wp.me/p2liAm-6c

Happy New Year!!!

It is now 2009, in Tokyo.  This is the first year of my blog,  but my 4th New Year in Japan.  New Year’s in Japan is a very different experience compared to Canada.  I’d say that it’s much more boring.  Of course, if you have a lot of foreigner friends, and they happen to be in Japan at the same time, it can be fun, but generally, there isn’t much to see or do.  I recommend avoiding this time if you are planning to visit Japan.  There are only a few exceptions.

In Japan, you generally have 5 days of holidays before you head back to work.  This season, we’ll have 6 days, due to the orientation of the week.  Many people will actually have 9 days as Monday is also a holiday.  Traditionally, the end of the year is spent doing many things.  It begins on December first.  Many people go to bonenkai parties.  These are essentially the same as any other Year End Party or Christmas Party, however, in Japan, these are still a little different.  Some people will go to a party every week.  Others, just one.  The most I heard was someone had to go to a party almost everyday before the holidays.  These Year End Parties aren’t easy either.  While it may sound easy, you have to remember that you are drinking until you nearly throw-up, and quite often you go beyond that.  You also have to function normally at work the next day as well.  While you may think that these parties can be “skipped”, many times, people go to parties that their clients are holding.  If they don’t go to these parties, they could be seen as not being a team player, or not caring for their own clients.

The actual holidays start around December 30th.  The end of the year is generally a very busy time to take a train or plane out of Japan.  If you plan to go from Tokyo to Osaka, or Hokkaido, and vice versa, you will have a very tough time.  Prices are increased for planes, and chances of getting a spot on a Shinkansen could be impossible.   Everyone usually goes home at least once during the holidays.  The best people go home for the entire holiday, whether they want to or not.  The other major thing to do for the last two days of the year is to clean up.  Unlike North America, Japanese people do their “Spring Cleaning” at the end of the year.  In this time, people tend to just throw away old junk and clean behind the shelves.  Depending on the house, it could take a day, or it could take five days.

On New Year’s Eve, there are no parties.  If you are a foreigner, you can always have your own party, but if you are planning to go out, good luck.  Most shops close early, and almost nothing is open after 9 pm.   There is only one interesting thing to do, if it’s your first time in Japan.  Go to a temple or shrine.  Meiji Jingu is the most famous in the West.  Thousands of people go throughout the night and literally throw money towards the shrine.  Dozens of guards are lined up and the police work all night helping you be orderly.  There are other temples and shrines to visit, but I have never been to any of the major ones.  Visiting a local shrine is much easier, but not as exciting.  It does provide a very interesting insight into what could be normal for other Japanese people.

On January 1st, there is absolutely nothing to do.  Some major electronics shops and restaurants may open, but generally, just stay home.  After, you can enjoy the shopping bonanza.  The first two days after the new year is Japan’s biggest sale time.  It’s akin to Black Friday in America and Boxing Day in Canada.  The morning of January 2nd, there are usually lines of people waiting to enter every shop.  Deals can be had for almost everything.  If you are strong, and brave, you can easily enjoy the shopping and the hunt for bargains.  If not, try to go a week later.  Sales tend to last for the entire month, but pickings can be slim after the first week.  The first day is the best in terms of selection, and obviously things get worse from there.  There is another interesting thing you can buy.  “Fukubukuro”.  These are “lucky bags”.  Hundreds, if not thousands of people will line up  at various shops to buy these lucky backs.  To buy one of these bags, you can spend as little as 5000 yen and as much as 500,000 yen.  You will often get double the price you paid, but there is one catch.  You don’t know what you are getting.  They just sell sealed bags stuffed with goods and you have to hope you get something nice.  Recently, there have been more and more bags where you can see what is inside.  If you are worried about size, they usually have signs that say who they are for.  In most cases, only certain people buy them.  Most people don’t.

Once January 4th comes around, things return to normal, relatively, and people go back to work and enjoy working hard.

I hope you all have a safe and Happy New Year.

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