From Sendai to St Ives North

I have been a volunteer fire fighter here in Australia for 37 years. For the last 9 years I have worked for the NSW Rural Fire Service. Around 5 years ago by chance I became involved in disaster resilience education through the NSW RFS, and now focus a large part of my time into implementing this DRE for children and young people in schools.

In each visit to Japan I tend to set aside one day (atleast) to connect up with disaster management staff and volunteers, and most earlier this year with community members.

And so it came to be that I was invited to speak at a Forum here in Sydney on 13 October to commemorate the United Nations International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction. And in 7 minutes I told what is essentially my story linking Sendai and St Ives North.

Here is my account of that presentation.

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More to explore in Tohoku, this time in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture

The Tohoku region north-east of Tokyo may not at the top of the visitor list, but it should be. Spectacular scenery, coastal and mountain landscapes, large cities as well as very small villages, numerous places to walk and with many small and large festivals to enjoy.

Re-invigorating the tourism sector is important element of the ongoing and seemingly never ending social and economic recovery for most places affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

With this in mind and a JR Pass in hand I spent a couple of nights in the industrial port town of Kamaishi, in fact re-visiting having been here just 15 months ago. Here is a taste of what I got up to. Detailed posts will follow and be linked here as well.

  • the focus of visiting Kamaishi was to meet up with Nodoka who recounted her lived experience of the earthquake and tsunami at Kamaishi Higashi Junior High School in Unosumai – the “Kamaishi Miracle”. See my post about this meetup here.
  • exploring the bays and beaches of Otsuchi with Yoko from the Takakin Inn

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First hand account of Disaster Resilience education at work

I am in Japan again. Usually on one day I take some time to do ‘work’ around the management of disasters. This time I caught up with someone who I saw present at the UN World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai in March 2015.

First hand accounts of Disaster Resilience education at work sure beats reading news clippings. Today my friends was one of those days.

See this account on my Awareness to Action blog at https://bushfireresilience.wordpress.com/2017/08/26/first-hand-account-of-disaster-resilience-education-at-work/

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Laundry nirvana in Morioka

‘Laundry needs to be done again’ I didn’t want to think about it.

After running around aimlessly for 6 hours in Tokyo on the great laundry hunt, and suffering the indignity of being offered a seat on the train, I wasn’t looking forward to this.

But laundry nirvana can be found in Morioka. A quick question at the hotel desk, a mapped marked up, and off I go. Found at the first attempt. Within 1 hour I am back, clothes washed and dried.

 

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A good beer and a good book

Another day goes by too quickly in Morioka. So I purposefully headed out to the Aeron Standard Diner and Bar for a local beer and maybe a conversation or two with the local patrons.

Maybe I need to lower my expectations a bit about the likelihood of striking  up a chat. I am so glad I took my book to read – just as a fall back, of course. Got 50 pages read which says a lot about conversations. Enjoyed the two Baeren Classics though! Aeron is a small place with a nice vibe, good selection of food, and friendly staff.

Next evening after another big day, this time I am intent on reading another 75 pages without interruption from those pesky conversationalists. Two more Baeren Classics, this time at the little Baeren pub in the basement of JR Morioka Station. Nice. Only got 64 pages read though.

Baeren is a micro-brewery in Morioka specialising in German style beer. Baeren was recommended by Meg, a Morioka blogger, so I thought I would give it a try. Goes well with books.

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No need to offer me a seat

And so here I was on the Chuo Line Rapid rumbling to Shinjuku, heading to the coin-operated laundry as directed by my Information Service friends back at Tokyo – back pack stuffed with dirty clothes.

I know the last hour had been hectic, and I might have looked a bit sweaty and tense, and I do have a nice head of grey hair, and I look like the age that I am (58).

But did the young man really have to offer me his seat? It’s all very good being polite. It hurt.

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Surely the laundry is here somewhere

Tokyo is a big place and I assumed it would be pretty easy to find a coin-operated laundry, pop the dirty washing in, sit around for an hour, and be back out touristing before you know it.

Here’s hour the next hours panned out.

  • went to the Visitor Centre literally outside the JR Metropolitan Marunouchi Hotel where we were staying. Very helpful, looked up Mr Google and gave me a map with 2 laundries nearby.
  • Went off in search of them. Failed to find either but found other shops in their place. Lesson 1 – don’t rely on Mr Google.
  • went to Shinjuku Information Centre, where the Tokyo folks suggested to go as a fall back. Mr Google was sourced again, another map, and a laundry name – only 500 metres away.
  • went off in search of it. Even after seeking advice at the Koban box, ‘not around here – we know all the shops’
  • rang Veronica in desperation. Veronica got advice from the Marunouchi Hotel folks. Great, got a map sent to me on my phone.
  • Went off in search again, map in hand (phone). Fail. Again. Another Koban Box chat, and this time further directions to a place in Tsukiji. ‘Definitely there’.
  • another 2 kilometres, a few laps of the blocks marked on the map. Bingo, found it! Not as marked on the map though.

I am a big fan of filling nearly every daylight hour with action when I am travelling. Spending nearly 6 hours doing the laundry is not my idea of a good day spent overseas.

 

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Strolling the Mitake Gorge

No need to go further up the valley deeper into the Chichibu-Tama-Kai National Park, strolling the Mitake Gorge riverside walking path caps off a great day that included the Mitake Tozan Ralway and the Musashi Shrine.

Starting just below Mitake station, the 4 km path follows the Tama-gawa downstream offering stunning natural river views, constant high flows rushing across rock shelves and around giant boulders. The moving water provides the soundscape. How can we be so close to the conurbation of Tokyo?

While the Guide books describe easy access to the Ozawa Sake Brewery, Mitake Art Museum, Gyokudo Art Museum, and Kushi-Kanzashi Museum, my suggestion is the hidden gem of Cafe Aun for a relax and refreshment while poring over the exquisite ceramic works of Ryujiro Oyabu.

The day spent around Mitake is a great recharge. Have a go yourself.

More information about the Mitake Gorge and other local sites can be found at Ome City Tourist Information.

http://www.omekanko.gr.jp/us/us.php?m=sd&k=20

 

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Musashi Shrine at Mt Mitake

When Tokyo gets discussed, the only image conjured up by most visitors is concrete and people. Yet as soon as you leave the flat land conurbation, extensive hills, mountains and forests beckon. Ome in western Tokyo is one of those places where sensory overloads of central Tokyo can be left behind.

The Mitake Tozan Railway delivered us up the mountain. Now our feet take us around the Mt Mitake precinct and the revered Musashi Shrine. On a good day you can look back to the high rises of central Tokyo, Mount Tsukuba, Boso Peninsula, and the Yokohama Landmark Tower.

As usual our first stop was the Visitor Centre to grab a map. The day Veronica and I were there just a few visitors to share the wide pathways that wound up to Musashi Shrine. The stone steps leading up to the Shrine entrance were beautiful. But steep – as often is the case!

The Musashi Mitake Shrine is dedicated to the temple built by Buddhist priest Gyōki in honor of the mountain deity Zao Gongen in the year 736.

 

 

 

 

 

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Can the Mitake Tozan Railway get any steeper?

Mt Takeo is a very popular destination on the western edges of Tokyo. Maybe less popular but an immensely interesting place to visit is Mt Mitake in Ome City where your day can have three distinct elements – the Mitake Tozan Railway, Matsushima Shrine atop Mt Mitake, and the Mitake Gorge walking path along the upper reaches of the Tama River.

From Tokyo central it might take 2 hours to reach Mitake Station. The Lower station of the Mitake Tozan Railway is just 10 minutes away on a regular local bus. Weirdly though the bus stop is a couple hundred metres short of the cable car, with a very stiff uphill walk to Takimoto.

Like a backwards roller coaster, the train draws you up to Mitake-San station,  gaining 4oo metres over 1,100 metres of track. The views are spectacular. And with the usual Japan railway efficiency, the up and down trains slide past each other on the one passing loop.

Veronica and I visited during spring, with the line a blaze of colour.

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JR Metropolitan Hotel Marunouchi, worth the splurge

Fair to say that 5 Stars is punching well above my usual accommodation level when getting around Japan. 3 Star business hotels are the norm. The JR Metropolitan Hotel Marunouchi (Tokyo) has such a good reputation and is close to transport – in fact, right next to Tokyo Station. Forget the cost I say. Less inheritance for the kids.

Things are looking pretty special when Reception is on the 27th Floor. The grand foyer (is that what it is on the 27th Floor?) includes fantastic artworks and a very large model railway. And of course the usual super attentive and courteous staff.

The King Corner Room had luxurious furnishings complimented by an expansive view north and east across iconic places like Asakusa and the Tokyo Skytree, as well to the expanses of this great city.

A great place. Value for money? Yes certainly, especially for a couple of special nights at the start or end of a trip.

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Cafe Aun quiet beside the Tama River

From the riverside walking track only a small wooden gate sign lets you know that both a gallery and cafe lie on the other side. The short path leads you past kid’s bikes, a cubby house and a deflated football that tell you this is an everyday backyard

The Aun Cafe sits in the back of the house with magnificent views over the upper reaches of the Tama River, close enough to hear the constant flow of rushing water around volcanic rocks seemingly deliberately placed to create a cluster of rapids.

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Akagi-goe section of the Kumano Kodo

The loop from Hongu Taisha to Hosshinmon-oji, on to Funatama-jinja and then on to Yunomine via the Akgi-goe section of the Nakahechi route is a very popular day walk. A short distance from Funatama-jinja, the route crosses over the Otonashi-gawa. A poem from 1158 reflects the spiritual significance of this place: Although the waters of the Otonashi-gawa are shallow, crossing them washes away the depths of impurity.

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Yasu’s favourite izakaya is now mine. IZAKAYA たいと

I met Yasu at the Japan Council of Local Government Authorities for International Relations (CLAIR) in Sydney a few years ago. With his posting over and a trip to Tokyo coming up for Veronica and I, some loose arrangements were made to meet up.

Without knowing much about each other, I opted for informality and the prospect of lots of food and adult beverages by suggesting that we go to Yasu’s favourite izakaya.

And what a damn fine night we had at IZAKAYA たいと (I don’t know what is says, but I gather it is an amalgam of the two operators names). When Yasu’s personal Japanese whisky bottle is bought over to the table, the prospects were good that things came only go up from there. Little did I know that Yasu has been eating at this place for 15 years!

Rounds of delicious foods were delivered, selected by by Yasu and Chie and by the operators – their special dishes for a favourite local and us blow-ins. The good range of food much was more that a typical izakaya. Great conversations about work, families, politics, golf, soccer, teaching, history and culture.

A really nice night. Thank you Yasu and Chie.

Check out a place like IZAKAYA たいと rather than the crowds and noise of Roppongi central.  https://goo.gl/maps/Ap3yeCrNZ1G2 106-0032 Tōkyō-to, Minato-ku, Roppongi, 3 Chome−4−48

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Kawayu Onsen – better second time around

There is something exotic and very reflective of the heart of Japan to stay in an old wooden ryokan, a fast flowing river in front before big hills that surround. Add to that open air hot spring baths. Kawayu Onsen is one of those places. In 2013 four of us old gents stayed in the Kameya Inn (a couple of stories about that are here)

A return trip in 2016 focused on the Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival. With most of the locals involved in the festival, including our Kameya Inn hosts who close the ryokan on festival day, the much bigger and formal Midoriya Hotel became our spot.

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Heart beat #19958

Contemporary art can be weird wonderful and whimsical, more often weird. When it is participatory, it is at another level again. And so I became heartbeat #19958 recorded on 13 April 2016 in Christian Boltanski’s worldwide installation ‘Les Archives du Coeur’.

The house sits facing a quiet beach of the Setouchi Inland Sea. Inside, “Les Archives du Cœur” my own heartbeats were digitised forever. I can’t remember what my personal message was which is part of the archive for the work.

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Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival

With declining rural communities as well as less Shinto followers  across Japan, local religious and cultural local festivals might be struggling to maintain community interest and participation. S0 I say to fellow visitors in particular – seek out and celebrate small festivals.

One such festival is the Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival, in Hongu, Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture in mid-April every year. With shrine ceremonies and procession of mikoshi, this festival is like many others just smaller scale.

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Images of the Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival

Big festivals in Japan are vibrant and exiting, the energy of the massive crowds palpable. But small festivals with rich history and cultural connections are worth finding.

On such festival is the Kumano Hongu Taisha Spring Festival, in Hongu, Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture. Hongu is a central place in the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage routes which are registered as UNESCO World Heritage and part of the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”.

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A short but well-formed section of the Kumano Kodo

Historic pilgrimage routes are becoming extremely popular with serious trekkers and casual visitors. The Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture offers the Kumano Kodo network of pilgrimage routes.

The 7 km walk from Hosshinmon-oji to Hongu Taisha is an easily accessible part of the Nakahechi Route that gives an insight into 1,000 years of arduous pilgrimage across the Kii mountains. Local buses can get you to the trailheads at either end.

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My Umbrella

The simple question from my work colleague was “where did I get my umbrella?” It might look like an ordinary, cheap looking, clear plastic, black ribbed and black handled umbrella. But that umbrella is a link to disaster, resilience, hope and friendship.

Here is the story of my umbrella.

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Miffy Cafe brings smiles in Kamaishi

Fair to say that I am not a fan of theme cafes. But the unmistakable line visage of Miffy adorning a cafe in far-off Kamaishi took Veronica and I back to those days some 30 years ago when Dick Bruna’s classics were a favourite in our household. We just had to go in.

That simple outlined image of a rabbit, often depicted with intense colour, associated with parent’s reading and children’s laughter. What a juxtaposition for Miffy to be in front of us here – a place of death and destruction, an engulfing tsunami etched in survivor’s memories, forever captured on video and seemingly endlessly repeated.

 

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Cafe Ryusenkei replaces a faster music life

So this is Cafe Ryusenkei, an American Airstream caravan from the 60’s transformed into an intimate, mobile cafe fitted out by award-winning designers. Moving from place to place, a calendar identifying the next port of call.

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Putting Hiraizumi on your itinerary 

A few hours north of Tokyo is the recently registered World Heritage Site of Hiraizumi that is recognised for its remarkable buildings and gardens that directly express Pure Land Buddhism.

I know little about Buddhism and less about the ancient connections with Japan as we now know it. The central place of Hiraizumi in religious and cultural history is highlighted in the fantastic Hiraizumi Tourism Association website.

So if you plan to head north past Sendai, maybe heading to Morioka, Aomori or over to Hokkaido – I would absolutely recommend a visit to Hiraizumi.

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Remains of the Stay

Traveling brings with it an accumulation of momentary conversations and connections. Relationships that are never developed, and highly unlikely to be rekindled. Like a variant on Kazuo Ishiguro’s fantastic book The Remains of the Day.

I smile to myself at times, reflecting fondly on those moments. I think I am a better person for having met otherwise random folk. On the other side of the world, maybe someone is mirroring those memories. I hope so.

There are too many of these instances to document. Making writing interesting about seemingly insignificant travel events relies on the context of being there at the time. A few though stand out for me, shaping an overwhelmingly positive set of experiences in half a dozen short trips to Japan.

So to Yau, Yoshiko and Yuri – I have not forgotten and here is a short version of your story that makes travel both a privilege and joy.

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Finding old Tokyo in Nippori

Ueno Park is a significant draw card for visitors, for its museums, galleries, zoo, temples and quiet contemplation. Just to the north of the Ueno Park precinct is Nippori, an old part of Tokyo that has history, culture and a beautiful park that doubles as a cemetery. Or should that be the other way round? Nippori is definitely worth exploring on foot.

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Ok. Ok. I am wearing tights.

The universal snow symbol near Akita was a good clue that Kakunodate was not going to miss out on the upcoming cold snap. Predicted light snow from Tuesday when i was arriving, through till Friday AM, with the wind chill dropping to -12 Tuesday and rising to a great -5 by Friday.

When I got to Kakunodate it was actually a blizzard. Fantastic for this Australian used to heat and bush fires. White everywhere. I am not one for moping around the hotel foyer. I have traveled too far for that. So on with every piece of clothing and get amongst it.

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Packing. Not yet competent

You would think that after a dozen overseas trips that I would be able to get packing down to a fine art. Well think again.

I am certainly a long way off being competent in the art of packing light. After every trip I write down what I did not use or could have done with out. How hard can it be?

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No regrets, but next time ….

Being a single traveler has a particular advantage in flexibility it brings. However you are always on the outside, a 2 hour drop in to a place, a single seat at the izakaya buzzing with small work groups.

For all the excitement of being in Sendai during the United Nations World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR), traveling alone and not as an Official Delegate did cause some pause for reflection about missing out on the social and networking that goes with events like conferences.

Not quite regrets, but next time I certainly would do a few things a little bit differently – such as:

  • arranging meet ups with people I did know at the event, or with folks who are working in areas of particular interest to me;
  • being bolder when it comes to breaking in to social conversations and groups in bars and eateries. “I now they are talking about the conference … “;
  • Travel late afternoon or evenings rather than in day time, thus missing out on events and activities;
  • Making a stronger effort to learn some basic Japanese, even as an ice-breaker. (I have unsuccessfully tried a Beginner’s Course. Must try again!)
  • Give myself a make-over and turn into an interesting looking twenty-something – a nearly 60 year old grey-haired gaijin doesn’t seem to attract interest)

For stories on the WCDRR and the other things I get up to that pays for traveling, see my blog Bushfire Resilience.

For more stories on travels around places other than Japan, go to Escaping the Nest.

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Don’t bother with Ginzan Onsen. Unless …

Yes I hear you. Ginzan Onsen is a beautiful place. Local and Prefecture visitor guides and bloggers consistently recommend Ginzan Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture for its old buildings, picturesque street and hot springs. 

But in March as winter slowly moves to spring, snow heavy still on the ground, chill winds and sleet – maybe Ginzan Onsen is a place that can be missed, or atleast ranked 6 on the top 5 places to visit in Yamagata.

Sans a travel partner or prospect of a romantic interlude inside the thin walls of a ryokan, it is a bit dull trudging past the ubiquitous souvenir shops bursting with trinkets and another form of local confectionery. Sure, the stream is lovely, and the night lights are likely to be very pretty. But in less than 10 minutes you get to the snow-blocked end of the main avenue and ask yourself: is that it?

So, my advice? If you are on your own, don’t bother. Find somewhere very similar, more easily accessible, with maybe some longer walks or interesting surrounding landscape. That is of course unless a romantic tryst is bringing you to Ginzan Onsen. And you know what, that will be the only reason I get back there.

The Tsubasa Shinkansen takes 40 minutes from Yamagata to get to Oishida, where a change is made to a fairly uneventful and unattractive bus ride for another 40 minutes that brings you to the edge of Ginzan Onsen. The following points do accurately describe Ginzan Onsen.

  • traditionally styled ryokan occupy beautiful three and four story wooden buildings along a picturesque stream criss-crossed by wooden bridges ;
  • The town center is a pedestrian zone (except for the constant deliveries by motor scooters and tiny trucks!);
  • Visiting in mid-March, the end of winter scenery is enhanced by heavy snow that clings to the rooftops and walkways;
  • There are two public baths and a free foot bath;
  • A spectacular, 22 meter tall waterfall rushes constantly at the back of the town.

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The cold, the old and the bold

My return to Japan in March revolved around attending the United Nations third World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR). Posts about that amazing event, the organisations and the people around the world putting their energies into mitigating the impacts of disasters will be found at Awareness to Action.

Being my seventh short trip to Japan I consider myself to be just below expert level at maximising a JR Pass! This time I opted for a 14 day pass – only being Japan for 12 days – and headed north out of Tokyo, doing a loop through Yamagata, Kakunodate, Ichinoseki to Sendai for the WCDRR.

Stay tuned for many posts on the cold, the old and the bold. Here is my itinerary – full on as usual.

Day 1: 6:30 arrival at Narita. Six visits to Tokyo is about enough. This time around, into Tokyo and out again at 9:30am to Yamagata. Afternoon wasted training to Sendai to miss a football match.

Day 2: Yamagata sights and places such as Kayjo Koen Park, Yamagata Prefectural Museum and Yamagata Gallery of Art. Afternoon in Zao Onsen, white out.

Day 3: To Oishida and then out to Ginzan Onsen. Wait for my post in which I will controversially suggest ‘don’t bother’ with Ginzan Onsen.

Day 4: Nearly 4 hours mainly by local trains to Kakunodate. Good look around the town, merchant houses Nishinomiya House and Ando Warehouse

Day 5: Kakunodate is famous for its preserved Samurai houses. Given it was still winter – and with a blizzard raging – few places were open. I did get to in to Iwahashi and Aoyagike Samurai Houses, as well as the Ishiguro Residence, Hiraruku Memorial Art Museum, and of course a visit to Kakunodate Fire Department

Day 6: Blizzard continues. Braved the loop bus around Lake Tazawako. Then stayed indoors by spending a few hours on the Akita Nairuku Line to Ainui and return

Day 7: Train via Morioka to a pre-arranged guided tour of the Hiraizumi World Heritage area. Fantastic. Then to Sendai.

Day 8 and Day 9: WCDRR in Sendai

Day 10: WCDRR event in Rikuzentakata, about 3 hours travel each way out of Sendai.

Day 11: Shiogama and Matsushima, before training it to Misato in Saitama. Go to watch Kashiwa Reysol play a football match. (every trip needs one game)

Day 12: A few hours strolling Tokyo’s Jimbocho book town and Koishikawa Kōrakuen Gardens before heading to Narita.

Easy. Even had a few hours spare to sleep occasionally.

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