Saturday, April 30, 2011

Messy Hair and the Four Nikons, or The Day I Discovered Viennese Coffee

Once upon a time, or maybe four years ago, Messy Hair had a slim Nikon Coolpix camera. Everywhere that Messy Hair went -- Tokyo, Eugene, Kamakura, Hiroshima, and Kyoto - that camera was sure to go. Messy Hair cared more for the slimness of the camera than the quality of its pictures. Because she could slide the very slim camera in and out of a narrow pocket on the outside of her purse at a moment's notice, no sight or site went unremembered.

Ansel Mariner shared Messy Hair's penchant for capturing memories on digital media but, because he is a guy no doubt, his camera-of-choice was one of those 75-pound Nikons that normally show up on the amortization sheets of professional photographers. Three of the four accessory lenses could fit in the special, super-deluxe padded backpack with the camera, while the fourth was so large they assigned it one of the carport spaces and learned to get by with just one vehicle.

Their photographic life proceeded merrily along. Messy Hair flitted around snapping pictures of flowers, statues, hospital corpsmen, and odd signage while Ansel Mariner trudged slowly in her distant wake, lugging his fancy equipment from football game to track meet to scenic panoramic vista. Messy Hair did her best to ignore Ansel's increasingly bowed posture. She only nagged him to stand up straight a couple of times, and we might as well blame that on Messy Hair's posture-obsessed mother since she is no longer alive to defend herself against being blamed for everything short of the earthquake/tsunami/radiation trifecta of March 11.

Then one day Ansel Mariner was invited to a reunion of Japanese doctors in Tokyo. He wondered if he might borrow Messy Hair's camera to capture the memories. Feeling guilty that she could not accompany him to this social event and run her usual interference between him and other human beings, Messy Hair loaned Ansel her camera.

A contrite Ansel walked through the door sans camera five hours later. "I must have left it in the men's room." Oddly, that slim camera is the only lost item in the entire history of Japan that has not eventually found its way back to the owner. A friend left a small shopping bag in a mall restaurant one February and retrieved it when she next visited the mall seven months later. We trust that Ansel really, truly contacted the party hosts in search of Messy's treasured slim camera although the loss of that camera is the only instance in recent memory when her usual charmed existence fell a bit short of the charmed mark.

Ansel worked very hard to redeem himself.  "Please, take my Nikon."  "It's too heavy," she pouted.

"Look!" he called, dancing on his hands and spinning eight china plates with his feet, "I've bought you the newest version of the Nikon Coolpix. It takes much better pictures than the one I lost."

"It's too fat to fit in the special narrow pocket on the outside of my purse," the ungrateful Messy Hair whined.

"Here! I found the exact same model as the one I lost." "Thank you, thank you, thank!" she squealed in delight. "Why don't I take that chubby camera as a backup for my heavy camera?" he slyly suggested. Messy Hair handed it over as politically incorrect phrases, like "Indian-giver" perhaps, bounced inside her head.

Time marched on.  Ansel Mariner sailed the Seven Seas snapping pictures left and right, literally we suppose with the chubby camera in his left hand and the professional behemoth in his right.  Messy Hair raced back and forth across the Miura Peninsula snapping every unfolding plum, cherry, wisteria, and hydrangea blossom.  Sometimes she was struck speechless by the sheer beauty of the children and scenery surrounding her.  Messy Hair throws her entire being into the rare experience of speechlessness.  Her jaw drops, her arms follow suit, and sometimes the camera, wanting in on the action, falls to the pavement or floor or whatever hard surface is closest to hand. 

"What happened to your camera?"  Ansel asked during one of his brief visits home.  "The metal endpiece thing fell off somewhere in Yokohama, or maybe Tokyo, but it still works so don't even think about trying to unload Chubby or Behemoth on me."

Then, just before Messy's next birthday rolled around, the Nikon people released a new version of their Coolpix camera. This one couples the slimness of which Messy is so fond with a retractable shutter that allows for crisper pictures. "Happy birthday!" Ansel announced. "Now you can retire that camera that reflects poorly on your husband and your children."

And that is what Messy did. For all of four months, that is, until the shutter on the new camera turned tempermental. "It won't open all the way, and it won't close all the way. The left upper corner of all my pictures is a black void."

"We'll just get it fixed. I've done some research," said Ansel in November 2010, "and we can have it repaired at the Nikon store in Tokyo. That will be cheaper and faster than shipping it to the U.S. to have it repaired under the warranty."

"What a great plan!" Messy agreed in her usual enthusiastic fashion. "It's readily apparent that all those brilliant Seventh Fleet planners are rubbing off on you."

And that is how five months later it came to pass that Ansel and Messy arrived at the Nikon store in Tokyo shortly before 8:00 am on a Friday morning, having experienced the nearby Tsukiji fish market at the obligatory 6:00 am when the market is at its bustling, energetic peak.

"Nothing on the Ginza opens before 10:00," noticed Messy. "On the contrary," contradicted Ansel, "I see people inside that Doutour coffee shop on the corner. Let's grab some coffee and fire up our Kindles."

Which is how Messy discovered that Viennese coffee combines three of her favorite ingredients: coffee, chocolate, and big dollops of heavy whipped cream.

The red camera was repaired in five minutes at no charge. They've ordered a replacement endpiece for the other camera. That will cost about $5.

Thanks for killing time with me while I wait for Ansel to get back from Korea with the pictures we took in Tokyo when we weren't otherwise occupied sipping Viennese coffee.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Sale of the Decade: Yet Another Reason to Visit Kamakura in May

Matsuzaki-san -- aka "Shonan Reiko" or "The Other Reiko" -- will close her shop near Kamakura station at the end of May. Weather and I arrived at the shop to pick up a special order today just minutes after the 50 percent off signs went up. Lucky us.

See the blank spot on the wall in the photo at left? The tote bag that was hanging there is now relaxing on my kitchen counter.

Matsuzaki-san specializes in transforming old kimono and obis into all manner of bags, book covers, cases, and clothing.  Among other things, she has turned a blue silk kimono into a stunning jacket for me and two obis into an amazing tote bag for Weather.  Next she will make placemats out of two obis that Weather nabbed at last week's recycled kimono sale.

Her son Yutaka, shown here wearing an aloha shirt Matsuzaki-san made from a samurai yukata, has managed the shop since it opened four years ago. Closing the shop will allow him to pursue other business interests and spend more time with his wife and their three-year old daughter. The terms of their lease have been onerous, especially for a two-person family operation, since their landlord requires that the shop be open all but five days a year.

Speaking of aloha shirts, did you know they were invented by Japanese people who took their kimono with them to Hawaii? They found the climate too warm for kimono so cut them up and sewed them back together as shirts.

If you want to take advantage of the sale, visit Kamakura between now and the end of May. The shop is on the second floor of the The Scene arcade building, on the same side of the street and just past the Peko-chan/Baskin-Robbins store. Take the stairway on your right to the second floor and the shop will be the first one you encounter. There's a live turtle in the window.

Otherwise, look for Matsuzaki-san at bazaars around our base.  The next one, sponsored by ATG, will be the first weekend in June.  The big Navy Exchange bazaar has been re-scheduled to late July.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Hail, Hail, The Gang's Half Here

The Ancient Mariner was home for all of two weeks before zipping off to Korea.  You are just going to have to trust me on this.  There is no proof that he actually exists because I forgot to swap camera cards with him before he rescued four pairs of shoes and every possible permutation of U.S. Navy uniform from a very large suitcase and repacked them into two smaller bags on his way to the airport.  He plans to return to Japan about ten minutes after I stop fuming about those two new suitcases.

It's hard to sustain a fruitful fume in the face of all the happy reunions I've been enjoying this week.  Many of my friends have returned to Japan and have hit the ground running.  Two cast members will not be returning to Japan so we don't know yet whether we'll have a chance to perform Steel Magnolias before our director moves to California this summer, but I think I'd better crack open that script and re-learn my lines just in case.  The Knit Wits instituted a second evening session this week so now I get to pound my opinions into younger heads six hours a week rather than three.

In short, except for those two suitcases, life is pretty darn good right now.   

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Inside the Recycled Kimono Sale

I had no intention of buying even one tiny scrap of fabric at last week's version of the semi-annual recycled kimono sale in the Yokohama Community Center. This was my fourth recycled kimono sale and I already have more obis and kimono, not to mention random fabric, than I will ever put to good use. To entertain myself while my friends elbowed their way to the obi bins and snatched display kimono off the walls, I pulled out my camera so you, too, could experience the delightful frenzy of sale day.

Betty made a beeline for the 100-Yen bin

Weather prepares to snatch an obi from an unsuspecting elderly Japanese lady

The intact kimono are grouped by type
Then my eyes started to wander around the room.  The two racks of children's kimono and yukata were screaming my name.  Every little girl needs a kimono in her make-believe chest, right?  How many great-nieces under the age of ten do I have?  How tall are they? 

Let's just say I made a good start on my Christmas shopping.  And I can finish this project in plenty of time to meet the international mail deadline since the next recycled kimono sale is October 18.  Mark your calendars, Yokosuka peeps.

We introduced four Japanese ladies to the wonders of the sale this time around which made it especially fun.  As you can see, no one went home empty-handed.  Now what in the world am I going to do with this hunk of muslin I picked up for 50 yen?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Oedo Antique Market: An Upscale Shrine Sale

Not far from the Imperial Palace, just across the street from Yurakucho station, you'll find an outdoor Oedo Antique Market on the first and third Sundays of most every month. In case you're the sort of person who doesn't relish making a trip in vain, I've included a link (here) so you can verify upcoming fair dates.

The event is cancelled when there is an 80 percent or greater chance of rain so you might want to check the weather forecast.  Why rain is an issue is anyone's guess since the market is held in the covered plaza at Tokyo International Forum.  The plaza is remarkably shady which will be quite appealing when July and August roll around.

I can't believe I've lived here nearly four years and have just now discovered this market.  We are all indebted to Otsuka-san for sharing this experience with us.

The doll-size geisha wigs were hard to resist.

Kaji-san brought her charming daughter, Natsuke (I hope I spelled that correctly). I rarely have the opportunity to see my Japanese friends in their mother roles and I haven't spent time with any 21-year old girls since half the Knit Wits left for the States last month, so meeting Natsuke was a special treat. She spent some time on the train studying for her driver's examination while we gawked at her artistic cat doodles. The textbook looked like it had about ten times as many pages as any driver's manual I've seen back home.
These "cat mobiles" caught my eye. Shinagawa-san showed us that they are simply fabric-covered plastic clips, the sort of clips used here to attach bed linens to balconies for airing. I wonder how many of these I might be able to whip up between now and next Christmas?  Or I could just buy a bunch the next time I visit the market.  There will definitely be a next time since I've just now noticed those sandals on the wall.

Weather has never seen a bowl she hasn't wanted to buy.

I managed (barely) to resist Peko-chan in a tuxedo

Shinagawa, Kaji, Peevish, Weather, and Otsuka
There are lots of nice restaurants in the basement of the Tokyo International Forum so don't be afraid to do some exploring.  Just walk around the building until you spot an escalator.  The Italian restaurant has really good pasta, pizza, and desserts.  The waitress handed Natsuke the biggest bowl of ice cream I've seen (outside my own kitchen) so that's what I intend to order next time.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Asakusa Random - Tour Guides and Whippets

To say that dogs are pampered in Japan would be like saying that the Pope is Catholic. This fashionable whippet was perched on a railing beside the Sumida River, admiring the last of the cherry blossoms no doubt, when we happened upon him during our recent pilgrimage. His master must have positioned him there before retiring to a nearby bench because there is no other way this little dog could have scaled that railing.

We also ran into a clutch of nursing home residents who didn't seem all that enamored with either the cherry blossoms or the sunshine, or me for that matter, but the sight of them struck a familiar chord, one that hasn't been plucked since we laid my mother to rest. There don't seem to be nearly as many nursing homes here as there are in the United States. From eavesdropping on my friends' conversations, I have the impression they are a relatively recent development in this part of the world.

These beautiful young ladies were clustered near Asakusa Shrine. Shinagawa-san told me they are bus tour guides-in-training. The school year ended last month and these girls are standing on the threshold of the real world. Maybe the Smithsonian Institution should institute uniforms for docents. One of those jaunty red scarves might have motivated me to lead perkier tours of the Postal Museum back in the day.

And that, dear friends, concludes the cherry blossom season for this year. On to wisteria and azalea!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Four Ideas for Celebrating Cherry Blossom Season Next Year

This is my final - or, gosh, maybe second to last - post about cherry blossoms for this year because I really need to get on with my life and I know you're anxious to hear about the Oedo Antique Market, the Recycled Kimono Sale, and how the Ancient Mariner survived four days of being bossed around Tokyo before fleeing to South Korea where he hopes to catch up on sleep during those interminable meetings where even the most innocuous comments must be repeated by a translator. 

Next spring will be my last chance to experience hanami in Japan. Instead of just wandering around with a camera as is my habit, maybe I will "go native" and approach the season from a new angle.

A cherry blossom scavenger hunt might be fun. I could try to track down all the different varieties of cherry trees pictured on the signboards scattered around the parks.

These two women are chanting in unison. Isshii-san tells me her father teaches this traditional Japanese . . . I am desperately searching for a noun here . . . art? sport? thing? entertainment? . . . at a local community center. Surely we can work up a charming little routine by next April.

Surely the easiest way to enjoy the sakura would be to invest in a ground tarp and a few bottles of sake like these men I saw at Mitsuike Park. Isn't it adorable that they doffed their shoes before stepping on that mat? Their mothers and wives trained them well.

Or maybe I should invest in a wooden flute like the only other gaijin I spotted among the thousands of cherry blossom celebrants in Yokohama on April 10. He was one of three flautists scattered around the park that day but the only one referring to sheet music. The others were either playing from memory or extemporaneously.

Frankly, I was a little embarrassed for the guy and found myself hoping he was German or French or Australian or any nationality other than American. I have a hunch he is what Dr. T would call a henna gaijin which roughly translates to "strange foreigner". (To put this in context, Dr. T was warning me that people were going to start calling me a henna gaijin if I didn't get a grip on myself.)

According to my subsequent research, henna gaijin creep out the Japanese by acting too Japanese, even though they blatantly look like foreigners. Henna gaijin can speak Japanese (no), use chopsticks (yes), eat natto with relish (not if it was the last food on earth), know more about Buddhism and garden landscaping than most Japanese people (maybe), and even use the elevators correctly (okay, lately I've been hitting that 'close door' button the second I step inside).

Upon reflection, the tarp and sake is probably the best option.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Tale of Two Visits: Isshii Explains It All, Including Soy Sauce Fermentation

The Radiation Rebels took about a hundred pictures on the grounds of the "shrine" they discovered just inside the main entrance to Yokohama's Mitsuike Park when they went there to view cherry blossoms on April 7.

"Check out these totem poles! I don't think I've ever seen totem poles outside a shrine before." "Me neither. How interesting."

"These statues flanking the entrance are quite unique," noted Flat Dylan.

We could not resist entering the "shrine" compound. The entrance gate framed a lovely view of the blossoming cherry trees. We crossed a large courtyard of fine gravel to check out the octagonal gazebo in the center of a long, narrow garden that meandered along the compound's right wall. We inspected rows of pots arranged against the back wall, glanced at a few rather stark outdoor sculptures, and gave a passing nod to the wooden building on our right as we moseyed back through the entrance to see what else Mitsuike Park had to offer.

Four days later I retraced my steps, this time with Isshii-san in tow. She quickly set the record straight. "This is not a shrine! This is an example of a traditional Korean home."

There's a lot to be said for exploring museums and historical sites with someone who can actually read and translate all those intriguing little signs. Take those pots. It turns out they were used for food storage by a typical Korean family of an unknown era. Unknown to me, that is, since I'm pretty sure Isshii-san tossed a few dates around while I was busy trying to digest all the other interesting information she was sharing, like the fact that soy sauce requires a seven-year fermentation period so seven of those pots would have contained soy sauce at various stages of fermentation.

We doffed our shoes to enter the traditional Korean house. There is quite an art to this shoe-doffing procedure. Longtime readers might recall College Boy chastising his father for letting a shoe-clad foot touch a temple step on New Year's Eve. He would have cringed to see his mother wobble between her sock foot on the elevated floor and her shoe foot on the entry stone. To avoid falling flat on her face, she instinctively pulled that shoe foot level with that sock foot and broke a cultural taboo. Whoops! Sumimasen! Gomen nasai! Whichever works, that's what I meant to impart to all those nimbler tourists.  At least I didn't knock over one of those pretty screens.  This time.

The beautiful floor tainted by a gaijin's shoe

The bed used in summer months

“The more you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.”
- Dr. Seuss, "I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!"

Friday, April 22, 2011

Celebrating Hanami with Ishii-san at Mitsuike Park

Ishii had never visited Mitsuike Park before I dragged her there to see cherry blossoms on the second Sunday in April. Our trip was much smoother than the one I took with the Radiation Rebels a few days earlier because Ishii knew we did not have to change train lines in Yokohama to reach Tsurumi.  We just hopped off the Keikyu express train in Yokohama, stayed put on the platform for two or three minutes, then jumped on the first local train that pulled up to the platform.

Also -- and please don't mention this to Weather or Sunshine -- Ishii knows how to get around on buses so we completely avoided that hour-long mountain trek.  We forked over 210 yen for a ten-minute bus ride that put us within two blocks of one of the park entrances.  Heh, heh.  

The park entrance nearest the bus stop

We feasted on our eyes on cherry blossoms while one of us nibbled on bread we'd picked up at the bakery in the Keikyu Tsurumi station. The other one of us wolfed down an egg salad sandwich and a loaf of banana bread large enough to feed a Japanese family of four for three days. You can figure out for yourself which one of us did which.

Our hanami adventure was truncated to slightly over four hours because I had a hair appointment and Ishii wanted to cast her vote before the polls closed (of course I am now enamored with the concept of Sunday elections). But Ishii whipped out a map showing a recommended three-hour hike that cuts across Mitsuike Park and we agreed we'll need to take that hike in the near future. We also agreed that we'll need to tack another two hours onto the estimated timeframe because one of us tends to stop abruptly to ask questions and take pictures. I'll let you figure out which one that is.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Experiencing Sakura Fubuki in a Shonan Home

The Ancient Mariner and I are heading up to Tokyo this afternoon to spend three nights at the New Sanno Hotel and then he'll be leaving Japan again for at least a week. One of the few good things to come out of this earthquake/tsunami/radiation mess so far is that some of those embassy and military families that booked Easter Weekend rooms a year ago remembered to cancel their reservations before they left in the wake of the disaster. Another good thing, thanks to all those cancellations, is that the hotel is offering a 25 percent discount right now.

We plan to spend the weekend re-charging our batteries, checking out a museum or two, and gazing fondly at our Kindle screens (he's finally started reading The Girl with the Dragon Tatto). I hope to post the rest of my cherry blossom memories before the weekend winds down. There are quite a few still in the queue.  This is one of them:

Misa wanted us to see her two cherry trees when they were in full blossom but by the time we were able to coordinate our calendars tiny leaves were emerging to flick those blossoms into any halfway decent breeze that happened to float through her yard.  That was okay by me.  Is there anything more pleasant than sitting in a garden on a sunny spring day with cherry blossoms raining on your head and shoulders?  They call this phenomenon of drifting blossoms sakura fubuki

Mineko, Misa, and Toyoko

Another special treat for me was meeting Misa's nephew who stopped by to fetch something or other from the little house on the side of the property where Misa's mother-in-law lived until she passed away. Like several of my Japanese friends, Misa spent most of her married life in the immediate vicinity of her husband's parents. It seems to work out fairly well for all concerned. Maybe not so much at first, but eventually.

Cherry Blossom Tea

Misa served us lunch but first she served tea and cookies. The cookies were from Germany via Osaka. They were so tasty I took a picture of the box so I'll buy the right ones the next time the Ancient Mariner and I visit Osaka. They were so tasty Mineko and I sauntered back over to the coffee table and surreptiously polished them off after partaking of a hearty lunch of four kinds of bread, three types of meat, two platters of fresh vegetables, three varieties of cheese, and fresh fruit.

How do these Japanese ladies manage to stay so slim into their sixties and seventies? Perhaps by inviting American ladies to eat all their cookies.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

New Sights in Old Asakusa: The Sky Tree and Secret Garden

Sky Tree and Five-Story Pagoda

The newest addition to the Tokyo skyline is the Sky Tree, rising 634 meters from the ground about one kilometer east of Asakusa and two kilometers northeast of Ryogoku, famous for sumo wrestlers and the Edo-Tokyo Museum.  The Sky Tree, scheduled to open sometime in 2012, will play an instrumental role in Tokyo's total transformation to digital communications.  And, yes, I'm wearing the scarf I dyed at the indigo shop in Saitama Prefecture a few years ago.

A few days ago I mentioned the (other) middle-aged ladies we met on our pilgrimage who told us about a special garden behind the Sensoji Five-Story Pagoda.  To access the garden, we entered the building on the right, followed arrows through a fascinating exhibit of ancient painted doors (from the original temple, I presume), and exited into a totally enclosed garden on the other side of the building.    

The garden was enormous, surprisingly so since it is surrounded by hundreds of small businesses and temple buildings in bustling Asakusa.  Either Weather or Shinagawa-san gets credit for the lovely picture at left, showing the Five-Story Pagoda reflected in the garden pond.  You might remember that my camera became a useless appendage a few stops back on our pilgrimage.

Tomoko-san, Bossy, and Weather-san in the Secret Garden

Water Striders (photo credit: Weather)
While I'm not a big fan of living things in general and dogs and insects in particular, the water striders skimming across the pond fascinated me. They were stationary for long periods of time then darted quickly in one direction or another, propelling themselves forward with a charmingly graceful and perfectly Olympian double breaststroke using both their front and back legs simultaneously. The end result of each darting motion was a quick little wrestling match between two water striders and then they were off again in search of new opponents.

That's my take on the natural world for 2011. I hope you enjoyed it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

In Conclusion: You, Too, Can Make a Hatsumode Shichi-fukujin

If it isn't one thing, it's another. In my case, if I've remembered to recharge my camera battery, I've forgotten to reinsert that memory thingamajig after downloading the latest batch of pictures. The night before our Seven Gods of Fortune pilgrimage I forgot to recharge the battery. "Way to go, knucklehead!" it sneered just before the camera blinked off at Imado Shrine. I've managed to steal a few pictures from my friends to wrap up this pilgrimage series.

(For posterity, and for friends who might want to make their own pilgrimages when they return to Japan after the radiation wafts into the stratosphere, I've included (here) a link to a nifty website that lists the shrines and temple in the order visited. Don't be dismayed when you see kanji rather than English words. Just click on the links from left to right and you'll be in business. You can pick up a map at the tourist center just outside the train station exit in Asakusa.)

The fifth stop on our pilgrimage was Hashiba Fudouson Temple, dedicated to Hotei, the fat and happy god of abundance and good health. A long and narrow stone path leads to a courtyard graced by a very old Gingko tree.

Just a block or so further along the road we found Ishihama Jinja Shrine, dedicated to Jurojin, the god of longevity. The Sumida River was still on our right but the neighborhood was sorely lacking in vegetation and had an industrial feel compliments of the three enormous tanks looming to the left of the shrine.

Tomoko-san bravely opened a little door in an ancient mound of what looked like lava on the right side of the shrine's courtyard and we all took a peek at a very old statue. 

Weather fondles a beast at Ishihama Jinja Shrine

The seventh shrine is as far from the sixth shrine as the sixth shrine is from the first shrine. There was a lone taxi parked next to Ishihama Jinja Shrine so we hopped in and tooled across Asakusa to Yoshiwara Jinja Shrine, dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of knowledge, art, beauty, and especially music. No pictures and I'm sorry about that because the statues flanking the entrance were remarkable for their gem-implanted eyes which sparkled ominously.

We hit one more shrine before we called it a complete pilgrimage, Ootori Jinja Shrine. We had already met all seven of the Seven Gods of Fortune so I have no idea to whom Ootori Jinja is dedicated. Perhaps the god Nara since the map pictures a man leaning against a deer. At any rate, I liked this shrine. Tomoko-san showed us the proper procedure for praying for everything you might imagine.

I approached this enormous wooden face and rubbed the forehead, then the eyes, nose, mouth, cheeks, and chin, and then ran my hands around the circumference in a clockwise fashion.

My prayer? Please, God, let us have lunch. It is nearly 2:00 pm and I am famished.

My prayer was answered in short order.


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