Experiences in Japan

My girlfriend, Tatiana, and I recently spent a month travelling around some of Japan – mid April-mid May. A fascinating, but often challenging country with a kind, gentle, mostly helpful people.

Unfortunately, for us, we struggled to understand large parts of Japanese culture and hospitality due to a combination of a language barrier (there is little English spoken on the streets) and the lack of social interaction between disabled and non-disabled Japanese people. Plus the added problem that Japanese people seemingly speak quietly when conversing with foreigners, but more loudly when talking with their compatriots. We found this doubly frustrating, especially as we both have a hearing problem!

Tokyo is vast, but can be divided into many ‘wards’ or areas and, using the internet, enables it to be broken down into various neighbourhoods or districts of interest. Using my laptop with speech screen reading software made it much easier for us to navigate the city once I had an idea of which areas and sights were of most interest to us.

For blind people, finding eateries and reading menus is a major challenge and, combined with the language barrier, made this problem even more arduous at times. On our first full day in the city, we found a restaurant called Royal Post very close to the hostel where we were staying. The staff were very helpful, guided us to seats where we had to wait for an available table, seemingly the norm in many Japanese eateries, and asked what we wanted to eat/drink. Not knowing what was available, Tatiana said, ‘chicken’ and I asked for ‘Japanese’. The waitresses laughed nervously and attempted to describe the meal choices. It was fun. We declined using chopsticks and said, ‘yes’ to what they suggested. We managed to request water and, in my case, Japanese tea. Both meals were interesting; mine consisted of a bowl of dry sticky rice, a bowl of a thin salty soup called Miso and a small plate consisting of some lettuce and long shaped delicacies in bread crumbs that resembled fish fingers, which I believe were prawns – it was delicious.

Our first meal in Japan accomplished, we continued our exploration – emboldened. Our next challenge was to cross the road and find the nearby train station to go to Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s historic areas.

The restaurant staff helped us cross the road and another pedestrian, who was heading in the same general direction, showed us to the station entrance. Using our canes, we followed the tactile lines on the ground and this led us into the train station and to the ticket barrier. Once in this area, we stopped and stood with our canes until someone asked us if we needed any help. We requested to be taken to station staff, who helped us board the correct train to Asakusa. Once at our destination, I asked another local for directions to Sensoji Temple – one of the district’s main attractions. The lady escorted us to the temple’s main entrance and helped me take photos. She enquired about our nationalities and why we were in Japan, laughing constantly! Once through the massive Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), the outer gate of Sensoji Temple, the symbol of Asakusa and, allegedly, the entire city of Tokyo, bustling with hundreds of local and foreign tourists alike, we began our stroll towards the temple along busy Nakamise Dori. This is a historical shopping street of over 200 meters that leads from the outer gate to the temple’s second gate, the Hozomon. We wandered slowly along, discovering typical Japanese souvenirs such as yukatas (light cotton kimonos) and folding fans and tasted various Asakusa traditional snacks such as Osenbei (rice crackers) and Mochi, round balls of a soft powdery texture made from glutinous rice.

Sensoji Temple, also known as (Asakusa Kannon Temple) is a Buddhist religious site and one of Tokyo’s most colourful and popular attractions. Beyond the Hozomon Gate stands the temple’s main hall and a five-storied pagoda (a tiered tower with multiple eaves). Destroyed in World War II, the buildings are relatively recent reconstructions. The Asakusa Shrine, built in 1649 by Tokugawa Emits, stands only a few dozen metres to the left of the temple’s main building. Not really knowing where we were heading, naturally, we walked past the shrine and needed help to find it. Due to not venturing out until mid-afternoon, a constant theme during this trip, we reached the inner complex as it was closing. Therefore, we only had time to climb one level, offer a brief wish at the shrine, have a quick photo and get out of there! Retracing our steps through the gauntlet of shops, we became lost as the evening became dark and a cold wind rose from the nearby Sumida River. Luckily, we met a couple of local guys in their early-mid-twenties and they helped us find the train station. From there we eventually returned to our hostel. Our first full day in Japan had been accomplished successfully!

This is more or less how we explored Tokyo and, indeed, the country. We stayed in a mixture of hostels, Airbnb places and also Couchsurfed on several occasions as we travelled around. It gave us some insight of the country.

On another occasion, we ventured to Ueno Park (Ueno Koen) in the Taito-ku area of the city. At Tokyo’s oldest and largest park, with help, we visited another popular religious site, Ueno Toshogu Shrine. A young Japanese lady guided us up a paved path, passing several varieties of indigenous flowers and some late blooming cherry blossom, before turning onto gravel and passing through the Torii (a traditional Japanese gate found at a Shinto shrine) and approached the outer area. The shrine was built in 1627 and dedicated to the memory of warrior, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542 – 1616), founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan for 265 years in what came to be known as the Edo period. The heavily gilded main building, that our companion briefly described to us, is also known as the shrine of gold, presumably for its heavily covered gold leaf decoration. I took a couple of photos before we departed. The information about the shrine’s history and architecture was gained much later. The area is peaceful and relaxing, but since we were unable to touch any part of the structure or decoration, it was rather uninteresting to both Tatiana and myself. However, the park was tranquil and it was a nice walk in the cool evening air. Next, we ventured down to Shinobazu Pond, a large lake that lies at the park’s southwestern end. Our companion departed and, left to our own devices, we slowly walked around part of the lake, listening to ducks and other birds do their thing. At one point, we discovered a delightful secluded fountain hidden amongst foliage – finding it by its sound. I dragged Tatiana over the grass and several tree routes and we briefly enjoyed the steady rumble of falling water before slowly making our way out of the park along a busy road. We managed to cross the road by using the audio crossing. Many main roads in Japan’s cities have audible audio crossings that produce a high-low beeping sound when it is clear to cross the road – most helpful for us!

I located one small restaurant by smell, my nose is extremely sensitive and this is how we find food when out and about. Unfortunately, the owner/waiter spoke no English and we were moved on! Eventually, a café was found and we had a rest; drank a strong cup of hot chocolate and shared hot-dogs – seemingly a regular item on the menu of many Japanese cafés! After walking past several restaurants, we finally became lost and as it was becoming late, a policeman, who also spoke no English, attempted to find us a restaurant. He walked us around a large area in search of what he thought we wanted to eat. However, we were only after food, nothing particular. Finally, a local Japanese restaurant was found and all was well. I think we may have had sushi in the end.

Maybe one piece of advice when asking for restaurants in Japan, be general, if you are specific, local people will try to hunt all over an area to find that particular place for you and, whilst this is very kind, it can often be a little frustrating and tiring! We eventually learnt that Japanese eateries appear to be quite specific when it comes to certain cuisines, i.e. Sushi, Ramen, Okonomiyaki etc.

We coped and as I say, many people were extremely helpful. They weren’t always sure how to interact with us or how to guide, they often pushed one of us in front of them instead of allowing us to hold their arm, made one of us go through a door first, which is polite, but rather dangerous for a blind person, as they could trip or fall up/down steps. They’d often take our hand or my shoulder etc. So it was always a learning curve for both parties. Towards the end of our trip we found people were asking too many questions when we became lost, like: Where are you staying? What is your hotel? How old are you? What’s your nationality? Etc. The police were especially inquisitive after attempting to escort us to our place of residence one evening when we took a wrong exit out of a train station. Apparently, the station staff became worried about us crossing a particular busy road, so they called the police. Kind, but rather frustrating, especially as they didn’t speak any English and we couldn’t communicate our desires or explain that we were OK and knew our destination. We felt patronised, but this is what can happen if you are blind, in a foreign country with a completely different culture and with people who possess a totally different attitude towards disabled people and, in Japan, the same attitude would probably be shown to most foreign tourists. Eventually, our host came and helped resolve the situation! Although even he was asked several questions! That is Japan, a very safe country with a police that maybe has little to do except ‘in their minds’ protect tourists from themselves!

Many locals we met on the streets, in the transportation hubs, shops etc., told us to ‘please enjoy Japan’. Certainly, in terms of eating, we did.

Okonomiyaki, which means ‘grilled as you like it’, is a kind of savoury Japanese pancake, made with flour, eggs, tempura bits, shredded cabbage, meat/ protein, covered in a sweet sauce and topped with a variety of condiments from cheese or potato to pork, beef or sausage and, of course, veggies. It can be prepared on a table with a built in teppan in front of the customer. you can cook your own but the staff will help you make it if you ask.

Then there is sushi: Tatiana’s favourite! We sampled it in several places, first alone, where a Sushi platter, wooden board with a variety of sushi samples was prepared – impossible to choose sushi on a moving conveyer belt when blind! Later we experienced it with several Japanese friends. Sushi is a vinegared rice topped or mixed with various fresh ingredients, usually seafood or vegetables. Nigiri-sushi, which is what we sampled the first time, consists of the ingredients on top a block of rice. The best experience of sushi came in Osaka when staying with a local couchsurfer. We were treated to Maki-sushi, “roll sushi” – rice, seafood and veggies were placed on a sheet of seaweed (nori) and rolled into a cylindrical shape on a bamboo mat and cut into smaller pieces. We made it ourselves and that was the real fun!

I found raw fish weird and nether really knew what I was eating! Small balls of rice with pieces of raw fish – the fish tasted cold, wet and of a chewy, jelly texture! However, at one sushi restaurant we were also able to sample small pieces of fried chicken and they were very sweet and extremely delicious. My personal favourite Japanese delicacy was Takoyaki, a spherical fried dumpling of batter with a piece of Octopus inside. They were especially tasty when big, hot and covered in soy sauce! Tatiana enjoyed Kamaboko, Japanese fish cake and Onigiri, rice balls usually wrapped with nori seaweed and containing a chicken, fish or vegetable filling. We also both delighted in Japanese sweets, Wagashi and Dango – a sweet dumpling made from mochiko (rice flour), related to mochi!

Other food sampled included Ramen, Chinese fried noodles and Soba, a more soup style noodle dish. I really liked Japanese curry, less spicy than Indian or Thai but just as delicious. We’d both return to Japan for the food alone. But also, to travel and explore other cities and places.

Navigating around Japanese cities as blind people seemed fairly easy in a physical capacity, since there are tactile lines on many streets and in public buildings such as airports, transportation stations, shops etc. Plus, when using public transport in Japan we were able to get guided assistance from one train/metro/subway station to another. Staff helped us on at one end, met us at our destination and escorted us to the connecting vehicle and/or to an exit. Lifts/elevators abound and the entire public use them constantly, so travelling with large luggage is not a problem in Japan. It’s possible to have your suitcases/bags forwarded between the airport and your accommodation and even onto your next destination if you choose.

Strangers we met on the streets, in the transportation buildings and connecting underground tunnels and vast shopping complexes helped us find restaurants, shops, visitor attractions and, occasionally, even escorted us to our accommodation. Notwithstanding these episodes of generosity, that we’re sure happen to many tourists visiting Japan, we still found it difficult to really get to know Japanese people and gain a true insight into the country’s culture and customs. My main impression is of a kind, predominantly gentle, respectful, shy, polite society, who are happy to help, but largely reluctant or, maybe, too busy to engage with foreign visitors, especially disabled individuals on a more personal level! However, these are simply my impressions after a short period of travel in a small area of this fascinating country.

After an evening spent in the company of a couple of Japanese friends who are physically disabled, we learnt that although there are practical structures in place for disabled people to access buildings, use public transport, travel around cities etc. The social interaction with, and acceptance of, disabled people is still lacking. A situation that is not dissimilar to society in the UK, Greece, the US and all other countries.

Upon arriving at Haneda, one of two international airports in the Tokyo area, we were met by airport staff, taken through immigration and customs and assisted in purchasing Suica Cards. This is a swipe charge card that can be used on all public transport within the Tokyo metropolitan area. It’s similar to an Oyster Card in London and swipe cards in other major cities and can be topped up with money via electronic machines in major train/metro/subway stations in and around the Tokyo metropolitan area, including its suburbs. It provides flexible travel around this gigantic, complex city – the world’s largest. It enabled us to move from one accommodation location to another and visit various areas of interest with relative ease, although lugging our luggage around was a different proposition altogether!

Although there are many shrines and temples, museums and outdoor attractions all over Tokyo, one of the best activities is to simply wander around the many diverse neighbourhoods and sample the atmosphere. Areas like Shinjuku with its gigantic transportation hub, shopping complexes, bright lights and stupendous noise, or enormous Shibuya, a more youthful area with yet more ear-shattering traffic noise, flashing bill boards and huge TV screens advertising all manner of items, not to mention the masses of huge busy crowds filling the streets. These districts are especially atmospheric at night when people are heading to restaurants, bars or clubs! It feels electric and the train/subway stations are hectic – it can take many minutes to pass through a ticket gate to enter/exit a station!

The highlight of our stay in Tokyo City was finding and being able to touch a statue of a dog named Hachiko! He became famous in the 1920s because he, apparently, continuously returned to Shibuya Station each afternoon to await his master’s return, even after he’d died! We were both just able to touch the dog and explore freely with our hands – a treat for us in a country that seemingly prefers its monuments and architecture to be viewed from afar!

From Tokyo, we headed north by bus to Sendai and spent five wonderful days in the company of Kodo, a local monk and boss of his own temple. He was extremely hospitable, showed us several choices of accommodation and helped us in everything we wished to do. He quickly understood our needs and desires and took us to many places. He cooked hearty breakfasts, showed us many different and fascinating sights, shared his time and knowledge and allowed us to sample yet more local cuisine! Tasting unusual flavoured ice cream like ‘green bean’ and ‘jelly fish’ was particularly exciting. And sampling beef tongue with him was one of my most memorable experiences. On our second day with Kodo, he showed us around some of the many sights of Sendai; starting with the castle ruins and ending with the Tall Buddha Monument. Aoba (Sendai) Castle is located atop a small hill surrounded by woods. Built in 1601 by Date Masamune, the founder of the city, it was used throughout the Edo period of Japanese history. It was partially damaged several times through earthquakes and fires until being totally destroyed during bombings of the city by the US Air Force during World War II. Tatiana and I were able to feel several bronze plaques and statues sculpted on panels around four sides of a large stone monument to Date Masamune. We also walked on the castle’s foundation blocks, now the only original remains of the fortress. At several temples, we were able to feel lion statues, climbing up on steps to obtain an impression of their size and scale. This was especially interesting for us as we gained a hands-on impression of the sculptures. We also touched and smelt many different flowers, Tatiana asking their colours, as she’d once had sight, whilst I enjoyed their scented aroma. During another excursion, Kodo stopped the vehicle so we could alight to touch a snow-covered wall – we had reached a high elevation whilst travelling towards Zao Okama Crater in the mountains. Sadly, the weather became too wet and windy for us to explore any of the area. Nevertheless, the drive there and back was fun enough as Tatiana and I felt the changes in gradient and the turns and twists of the road with its plethora of large hairpin bends – thrilling!

After our five-day all-sensory experience in delightful local company, we ventured to the small cultural city of Hirosaki in far northeast Honshu – Japan’s largest main island.

We arrived later than expected, but Kodo had phoned our booked hostel and the female owner kindly collected us in a tiny car. One night was spent upstairs in a typical Japanese style room, futon mattresses on tatami mats on the floor. Our second night was spent sleeping in a dorm room to ourselves on the same level as the showers, which made life a little easier! When entering any Japanese home/accommodation, we had to remove our footwear, this became exasperating after a time and hard work, what with all the bending and lace tying etc. We managed, but what a hassle!
Our only day in the city was spent journeying to the train station, buying tickets for our onward destination and, with help, exploring the Hirosaki castle ruins, which is now a public park full of cherry blossom during mid-late April. We met a lovely female staff member in the train station, who helped us purchase tickets and explained the process, as the journey involved several changes. Later, other station staff took us to the nearby bus stop where bus staff helped us locate the former castle. Once there another kind lady, who worked for the park, gave us a guided tour and took many photos for us. She was wonderful and went out of her way to take good photos of the nature and views. I take pictures to prove I’ve visited a place!

We only had one problem in Hirosaki, finding internet access was almost impossible. I needed to email our next couchsurfing host to ask him to meet us once in Sapporo, capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and our next destination. Luckily, I managed to find Wi-Fi the following morning and some six hours after departing Hirosaki, we arrived in Sapporo via the Seikan Tunnel – the world’s longest tunnel with an undersea segment.
Railway staff helped us find our host who we stayed with for three nights, again sleeping on the floor on futon mattresses. We joined our host along with another Japanese couple I’d met on couchsurfing for sushi after visiting one of Sapporo’s mountain’s and standing in snow! Our second evening was spent enjoying more Japanese cuisine, this time in a vegetarian-vegan organic restaurant, with the Japanese disabled people I’d mentioned previously. Many small dishes were available for a set price and everybody gorged on Japanese pickles on cheese, fried tofu, soy made fried chicken, miso soup and several other unpronounceable delicacies. Tatiana and I even sampled Chawanmushi, literally “tea cup steam”. An egg custard dish comprised of an egg mixture flavoured with soy sauce, dashi and mirin. It tasted like a thin egg soup, sort of like fried egg but without the fried sensation! It was a great evening in wonderful company and we learnt a little about Japan.

A week was spent on Hokkaido Island, venturing north to Asahikawa, Japan’s coldest city for a night, staying in a quaint hostel completely comprised of wood and had more traditional cuisine, this time sitting on the floor with our legs crossed! This was followed by our adventure to the top of Japan. A long, slow 3.5-hour train journey deposited us in Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost city, where we caught a ferry for a 2.5-hour rough crossing to the island of Rishiri. On arrival at the port, we were met by our host, a fast speaking, squeaky lady and driven to the Guest House Rishiri Greenhills Inn. A large building with an excellently stocked kitchen and communal dining room. Free bread was offered for breakfast and hot water was readily available for tea/coffee. Private and dorm rooms were upstairs along with the communal showers and toilets. I never found the showers! It was so windy on Rishiri Island that we did nothing for two days, simply relaxed and drank lots of fruit flavoured tea! I did venture out on our first night to attempt to locate a convenience store, but it was simply too windy – gusts of over 50 kilometres per hour according to the internet! Eventually, we undertook the return ferry and train journey to Asahikawa, spent a second night at the homely Yado Retro House hostel before busing it back to Sapporo to wait for an evening Jet Star flight to Osaka, west Honshu. After landing at Kansai International Airport, we took a shuttle bus to Osaka and arrived at our accommodation at 1 am, moments before they closed. A day was spent mainly relaxing, although we did venture up the nearby Sky Building in the evening to check out the view! Unfortunately, it was raining and, probably, too dark by the time we reached the observation deck! On our second day, we travelled to the small riverside city of Minoh and took a very slow and long hike uphill to Minoh Waterfall, which we did eventually find in yet more rain! The first part of the walk was fairly straightforward as we simply followed the river. However, once in the park, locating the actual falls was more challenging as we kept taking side trails and becoming lost. With help from several other walkers, we eventually reached it, but by then it was raining considerably. The walk back down felt even longer. However, we managed to get a ride with the local police, which was fortunate. We eventually made it back to the hostel, grabbed our bags and managed to catch a late train to Nara, some forty minutes’ distance. Again, we managed to reach our accommodation moments before closing.

The following day we wandered into the centre in search of breakfast. A Japanese lady escorted us to a Starbucks. Once fed, we located the local bus with more help and headed to the Nara Park, location of several temples. Upon disembarking from the bus, we met a tourist from England named Tim, and he helped us visit Todaiji “Great Eastern Temple” containing an extremely tall Buddha statue. It was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan. Once inside the covered area, the three of us wandered around the main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) which, is allegedly, the world’s largest wooden building, despite the fact that the present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original temple hall’s size. Tatiana and I were able to feel one statue of a ‘medison’ Buddha, close to the exit of the Buddha hall. That was something at least, especially after the remainder of the temple complex was visual. Climbing up and down the old, large, stone steps was fun. One high step necessitated climbing on a smaller stone slab and putting your leg over the large stone before stepping down on the other side! After this adventure, we shared snacks at a nearby kiosk that sold ice cream and wagashi amongst other delights. Finally, we returned to the guesthouse, grabbed our bags, and moved yet again.

A second night in Nara was spent at a delightful guesthouse made of traditional wooden and paper panelling. We had yet more delicious Japanese cuisine and the next morning caught more trains. Our next destination before returning to Osaka was the small riverside city/town of Uji – famous for being the setting of the final part of ‘The Tale of Genji’ – a Japanese epic novel set in the twelfth century. Lunch was taken at a traditional tea house adjacent to the silent river before a delightful hour was spent with an audio guide listening to ‘The Tale of Genji’ as told via Japanese videos with English translation. An epic tale of love and tragedy, rivalry and politics – high drama at its best! Although the museum staff were very helpful, they had only basic English skills and mis-understood my request to find and touch the Genji statue. When I said, ‘monument’ I was told it was far away and closed. There is a Genji statue outside the museum, but we didn’t learn this until we returned to the train station. We met a couple who were half Japanese-half Austrian and they took us across the Uji Bridge to take photos. They even showed us a bust of the author of ‘The Tale of Genji’, Murasaki Shikibu. so at least we were able to touch one statue of a person of note! I read on the internet that Uji was dotted with statues of the major characters from the epic novel.

Back at the station, we headed to Osaka, where we met our Japanese host Rei, who we stayed with for three nights. This is where we were treated to the unique experience of having Japanese food cooked for us in a home by a local lady – it was exquisite!

One day was spent attempting to explore some of Kyoto via the Kloop hop on-hop off bus. Unfortunately, the bus staff didn’t speak much English and, not only did the audio guide refuse to function, but it also came with earbud headphones, which I was unable to use because of having to wear hearing aids. Thus, this tourist bus was an expensive disaster for us, £22 per person with audio guide!

We visited Nijo Castle (Nijojo), which was interesting and offered a much better audio guide. I walked around some of the gardens briefly in the 30 degree C heat and met a couple of different foreign tourists. People gave me directions to the Ninomaru Palace and I was able to take photos using the information from the audio guide. We spent the evening hiking up the mountain that contains Fushimi Inari Taisha – the head shrine of the Inari. The shrine sits at the base of a 233-metre-high mountain with the same name. Its slope is lined with hundreds of Torii gates! Since early Japan, Inari has been seen as the patron of business, and merchants and manufacturers have traditionally worshipped Inari. Each of the torii at Fushimi Inari Taisha is donated by a Japanese business. Although, Inari is the god of rice.
The air became cooler the further and higher we climbed. I managed, with help, to find a fox statue for Tatiana to touch and for me to take yet more photos. We arrived back in Osaka late and worried the hell out of Rei. One final day was spent relaxing before we ventured to Kobe for two nights and couchsurfed with a guy from England, who’d been living in Japan for several years. This accommodation was another traditional Japanese house with wooden floors and rather thin walls. Japanese ornaments littered the lounge and I found a paper lantern in our makeshift bedroom. We wandered into Kobe on our second afternoon and, with yet more local assistance, located the delightful Nunobiki Falls – 43 metres high and rather loud! Once our companion had deposited us at the entrance to a park and we’d shaken off the unwanted attention of another local, we followed a gravel trail towards the water’s sound. Tapping with our canes, we eventually found a wooden staircase and ascended. At the top, we continued towards the sound of falling water, using the rough wooden hand rail as a guide. Once in front of the falls, we stood and simply enjoyed the crescendo of crashing water. After a delightful thirty minutes of peaceful, comforting immersion into our own thoughts, we retraced our steps, headed into the nearest train station and went to the centre to find dinner.

Early the following morning we flew back to Tokyo, spent a day sleeping in the airport, before our long night flight back to the UK and Greece, respectively.

Travelling around Japan was fun, challenging, at times stressful as we had too much luggage, kept moving locations too often, didn’t understand the language and, at times, couldn’t hear conversation from our hosts or people on the streets, which made life more frustrating. For any return trip to Japan, we would stay longer in each place, have better accommodation booked in advance and undertake further research before travelling. Learning more Japanese words and phrases might also be useful!

The food, as mentioned, is fantastic and delicious. The people; kind, gentle and mostly helpful, but we felt they lacked real warmth towards us and I’m not sure if we’d ever make too many real friends. Also, if you can see, then Japan has so many fascinating visual attractions such as Kyoto’s adornment of temples and shrines, the nature in the countryside and mountains. For us, we found little to touch and get our hands on so our main experiences were gained from the atmosphere of places, the sound of waterfalls and fountains and the taste, texture and smell of the diverse, enriching cuisine. This is how we mainly experienced Japan.

A challenging, interesting, occasionally frustrating and exasperating adventure, but a great learning curve as always.
Tony Giles 😊

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