Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Tokyo Stories - Visitors' Introduction To Sights and Pop Culture

I have been blogging about Tokyo and various aspect of Japanese pop culture for almost a decade at this point.  Japanese pop culture, particularly anime, and my visits to Tokyo have brought a great deal of joy into my life over the years.

I've visited many of the great cities of the world and I personally think Tokyo is the most fun to visit, even without taking into account the vibrant nightlife there.  There is a richness to the environment for things to see and do, food to eat, and the unique atmosphere combining high tech and old tradition.  Having exposure to anime, which are often set in historic, contemporary, or future Japan / Tokyo definitely made my experience deeper and better.  There are not many places like Tokyo that also have a meaningful attachment to it through pop culture.

I finally decided to sit down and write a book about visiting Tokyo for everyone who wants to visit, but also apply a pop culture lens to let them get more out of their experience.  My book emphasizes what to see and do for anyone, but provides a pop culture context to give more background to any visit.

The heart of the book is composed of four short stories and descriptions of more than fifty key experiences to have in the city.  I actually wrote the short stories to act as easy introductions to the city with each one having a preface explaining terms and references used in the story.  People remember stories so they should be able to learn something about the city and a particular aspect of pop culture as the same time.  By the end of the book a reader should have a good idea about what they would like to see and do, and understand the context of some of the things they will experience.  This is information that supplements any other guidebook or online source of information they will also use to plan their trip.

I hope you can give the book a read and enjoy both the stories and the experiences I write about.

The e-book is now available on Amazon Canada and USA.

An excerpt from the book is below, including the full preface to Neko Astray.

This story introduces some of the basics about trains, Japanese gods, cat cafes, and some Tokyo districts. It is about the journey of a cat and the human that helps her through the mean streets of Tokyo.  Cats are very much loved in Japan and are quite popular in pop culture.  There are cat girls, cat cafes, cat manga, cat islands, lazy cats, cat conductors, lucky cats, etc.  They have been rendered as cute figures in pretty much everything.
  • Buddhist Temple:  Buddhism originates in India, and was imported to Japan from China.  Buddhism co-exists with Shinto in Japan and temple and shrine can exist in the same religious complex.  Buddhism is based on the teachings of Buddha and is about overcoming suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth.  There are many sects and traditions, and it has complex mythologies that include many gods, and guardians.
  • Cat cafe:  A theme cafe where you get to interact with cats while having a coffee or a dessert.
  • Cat shrine:  Tokyo has two famous cat shrines where you can pray for luck from a kitty or for a kitty.  Gotokuji Temple is a Buddhist temple known for its cat shrine that has thousands of lucky cat figurines.  Imado Shrine is the other famous cat shrine that features cat statues and it is known as a shrine for love relationships.  Both shrines have a different origin story for the maneki neko.
  • Conveyor belt sushi restaurant:  Kaiten-zushi or rotation sushi where the plates of sushi are premade and placed on a conveyor belt.  Diners pick the plates they wish to eat and a bill is tallied up from the number and type of plates at the table.
  • Gomenasi:  Go-men-a-sigh.  Sorry.
  • Gyudon:  A beef rice bowl.  Sauteed onions and thin strips of beef in a light sauce on top of steamed rice.
  • Konbini:  A Japanese loan word for convenience.  Convenience stores are everywhere in Japan, and are very common near train stations.  Konbini sell all manner of drinks (including alcohol) and snacks, but are known for their high quality fresh food like tasty onigiri (rice balls), sandwiches, pastries, bento, fried chicken, and other food.  They also stock a good selection of household products, stationary, personal hygiene supplies, and even underwear in their small confines.
  • Konnichiwa: Kon-ni-chi-wa. Informal hello and greeting from mid-morning to early evening.
  • Maneki Neko:  Lucky cat figure or beckoning cat represented by a sitting cat with one paw raised.  Usually it is a white cat with the insides of the ears colored red.  It is often found in homes and business to bring luck.
  • Neko:  Japanese for cat.
  • Onigiri:  Rice balls. Palm-sized balls of rice with a filling and maybe a wrap of dried seaweed.  These are very popular in Japan and are basically their version of a sandwich.  There are dozens of flavors including: tuna and mayo, salted cod roe, grilled salmon, pickled plum, and Japanese pickled vegetables.
  • Shibuya Crossing:  The busiest pedestrian intersection in the world.  It is a scramble crossing where all vehicular traffic stops for pedestrians to scramble through the intersection from all the corners, then the cars take their turns in alternating directions.  The cycle then repeats itself.
  • Shinto:  The native religion in Japan predates Buddhism and has shamanistic elements to it.  It is tightly coupled to nature gods/spirits or kami and all things on earth can have a kami representing them.  All things on earth also have a spirit.  Prayers and offerings to the kami can be for fertility, good harvest, success in business, to luck in love, etc., depending on the kami.  Kami respond to human prayers to influence the natural course of events.  There is a saying that you are born Shinto and die Buddhist.  Shinto Shrines are often family run.
  • Shinto Shrine:  A sacred space that houses the kami it is for.  Entering through the torii gate, often red, means you are entering sacred ground.  There may be guardian spirits represented too.  For example, an Inari or Fox Shrine will have two foxes guarding the approach.  There are often sacred trees and objects associated with shrines. Jinja is the Japanese for shrine.
  • SUICA card:  A SUICA is a smart chip debit card that you preload with cash at the train station ticket machines, and is used to pay for train rides by scanning at the entrance and exit gates.  The card is used in multiple cities and is valid at many retailers in train stations and even at some vending machines.  PASMO is a competitor card with the same benefits.
  • Sushi:  A topping of thinly sliced seafood, omelette, or vegetable is placed on top of a small, palm pressed clump of cooked white rice.  The topping can be cooked or raw.
  • Tendon: A tempura rice bowl.  Tempura in a sauce on top of steamed rice.
  • Tempura:  Battered and deep fried seafood and vegetables. 

Saturday is supposed to be a day off, but you found yourself at work early to put the finishing touches on a presentation for Monday morning.   At least your boss is also in this morning to do the final review, and you receive a curt but genuine thank you for your hard work.  Done by lunchtime, you decide to grab a quick bite at a tendon restaurant near the office.

You order a bowl of shrimp and vegetable tempura on rice and leave the restaurant in a better mental state and a pleasantly filled stomach.  There’s nothing like crunchy tempura with sweet and savory sauce on warm rice for comfort food, you think to yourself.  Well, maybe beef bowl might be pretty darn good too, or even a …  Stopping this train of thought as it could go on for awhile, you wonder what to do with the rest of your day.

You were supposed to meet up with friends this morning, but you had to cancel that due to work.  Thinking for a moment, you decide to visit a cat café in nearby Shibuya and then do a little shopping.  A ten minute walk through the streets of densely packed office buildings takes you over to Shibuya Crossing.  The sun is shining and the weather is just right, so the day is turning out pretty good.

Shibuya Crossing is famous for its scramble crossing and statue of the loyal dog, Hachiko.  Hachiko was a Shiba Inu who awaited for his master every day after work even after he had passed on, a story that is both touching and tragic.  The statue is also a popular meeting place, often featured in the media along with the scramble crossing behind it.  The Hachiko exit out of the busy Shibuya Train Station is one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in the world with thousands of people trying to cross at once during busy times to get to the popular Shibuya shopping district.

When the light changes you begin to cross the street as part of a wave of pedestrians from the Hachiko corner.  You head towards the glass and steel building with the giant 5 story high TV screen that showed a giant walking dinosaur in the movie Lost in Translation.  Under the screen is a Starbucks where you have taken a break before.  This busy coffee shop provides a third floor view over the crowds of people surging through the intersection.  Your pedestrian wave meets the other crowds from the five other corners of the intersection in the middle of the intersection.  Somehow, everyone dodges by each other without collisions.  You then angle slightly to the left of the TV building to head towards Center Gai, the main street in Shibuya for shopping and entertainment.  Walking in a couple of blocks you turn off the main street onto a smaller side street to see a doorway embedded in the mouth of a giant cartoon cat.

It is Café Nyan de Puff, a café where you can have a drink or a dessert and meet cats up close.  You’ve always liked cats and befriended several neighborhood strays before you moved to Tokyo from your home town.  You’d like to own a cat, but your apartment building prohibits pets, so you come to this café once a week to get your feline fix.

Entering, you are greeted by a waitress who directs you to sit down at any open seat.  The café is an open rectangular space with a hardwood floor and walls decorated in bright, cheery colors with cartoon kitties on the walls.   Small tables and chairs are scattered around the room, which is lined with cat trees and ledges and walkways for the cats to roam on.  The front entrance is at one of the narrow ends with a closed off kitchen area in the back, along with a private cat area for cats to retreat to if they don’t want to be bothered.

After a quick look at the menu on your table, you order a latte, and take a look to see if there are any friendly cats wandering about.  Photos of each cat along with their name and personality are placed along the walls so you can call the kitties by name.  You don’t need the pictures though as you are looking for a particular calico cat named Tama.  She has white, orange, and black fur with a black patch over her left eye.  Last weekend this cat had a very nice session of much petting and purring on your lap.  Tama had just arrived two weeks ago, being adopted by the café from a cat shelter, after being found wandering the streets.  She had a collar with a name, but the tags were missing so she couldn’t be returned to her owner.

All around you are grey cats, white cats, black cats, but you don’t see Tama.  “Where are you, Tama,” you say softly to yourself.  Something is suddenly rubbing against your legs and you look down to see that it is Tama.  She trills and looks up at you.
“Tama!” You exclaim.  “You found me.”  You reach down and pet the cat.  After a moment you sit down at your table and she jumps up into your lap, rubbing her face against your hands.  Both of you are happy to see each other.

Your latte arrives and you have a sip while giving Tama a scratch under the chin which she enjoys.  Many minutes pass and you finish your latte.  This is when you observe that Tama is somewhat distracted, after the initial excitement of being reunited with you.  She keeps looking at the front door, which has a double set of doors to keep the cats in.

It has been almost an hour since you arrived and you flag down the waitress to pay for your drink and the cover charge.  She brings a bill and you pull out some coins to pay.  Tama suddenly jumps off of you and moves to the front of the cafe.  She turns to give you a look and a meow that almost sounds like a goodbye.

A big group of high school girls in their uniforms arrives at the café at that moment.  They are having a very animated discussion, and hold both the inside and outside doors open as they enter.  Tama sees the opening and makes a break for it between the girls.  Dodging between the feet she darts out and runs down the sidewalk.  The girls don’t even notice.

“Tama!” You shout out.  The waitress looks up from dealing with another customer to see the cat escape and exclaims, “oh no!”

“I’ll try to get her,” you reply.  “Thank you,” the waitress replies in a flustered tone.

You manage to squeeze by the students who are clustered around the entrance and look down the sidewalk for the cat.  She has a pretty good head start and is halfway down the block already, trotting quickly towards the main street.  You break into a run to catch up.  Tama seems to hear you approaching and looks back at you, then breaks into a run around the corner of Center Gai in the direction of Shibuya Station.

Arriving at the corner, you frantically peer down the street, trying to spot the cat at the feet of numerous pedestrians.  You just manage to spot a tail disappear behind a sidewalk rack of cosmetics at  a corner drug store.  Dashing to the corner, you see Tama is still well ahead of you, but you swear she is talking to a grey street cat.  The two cats are face to face and the grey cat seems to meow and point its head to the side.

“Tama!” you shout again, slightly out of breath, thinking your office job makes you sit too much.
Tama looks at you again then runs into an alley as fast as her little paws can take her.  The grey cat also takes off in a different direction.  You follow her into the alley past stacks of plastic crates against the walls to see the cat run through the back door of a building.  Arriving at the door, you find out it is the kitchen of a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.

You see the cat heading right for the front door, undistracted by all the raw fish on plates circling the restaurant on the conveyor belt.   She is unnoticed by the diners enjoying their fresh and cheap sushi.  There is hesitation in your step when you enter the restaurant in this unorthodox manner, but you need to follow the cat who has just exited through the automatic doors at the front of the restaurant.

Unlike the cat, you are noticed exiting the kitchen by one of the sushi chefs, who gives a shout of surprise.  Not wanting to explain what you are doing to a man with a sharp fish knife, you call out a quick sorry as you dash to the front door of the restaurant.  A number of the diners look at you curiously as you run through the restaurant.  Exiting the front of the restaurant you see the cat descend some stairs down into the subway.  A quick glance behind you shows that no one is chasing you, thankfully.  This cat seems to really want to go somewhere, you think to yourself. 

continued in the book...

The e-book is now available on Amazon Canada and USA.

Supplements to the Tokyo Stories book
Supplement #1 - Simplified Tokyo Train Map for Tokyo Stories
Supplement #2 - Sights and Experiences Checklist for Tokyo Stories

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Tokyo Stories 99 cent One Day Sale Dec 14 (8 AM to Midnight)

Tokyo Stories
Visitors' Introduction to Sights and Pop Culture

One Day Sale on Dec 14, 2018
from 8 AM PST to midnight PST.

This is your chance to pickup a copy of this innovative guide book for 99 cents as an Kindle ebook.  Be entertained and learn about the best Tokyo attractions at the same time.

For more information on the guide, check out this link to the book.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Japanese Snacks I Would Stock Up On Next Time I'm In Tokyo

One of the best categories of things to bring back from Japan is snacks.  You'll encounter all kinds of snacks.  Do visit all kinds of shops and definitely each of the konbini chains like Lawson, 7-11, and FamilyMart.  You can even stock up on a few baked goods / cookies the day you leave or the day before to have something fresh to eat that reminds you of Japan after you get home.  This post is a list of sweets and snacks I would recommend that you try and if you like them, then bring some back!  I just don't bring drinks as they are heavy unless it is alcohol.
Lots of instant noodles to choose from.
Lots of different types of Kit Kats too!
Then there all kinds of Pocky, Pretz, and chocolate biscuits in general.
Yup.  You can bring baking like cake, cookies, and mochi back home.  Just pack it well in your carry on or your luggage if you have a box to prevent squishing.  This is a big treat that is nice for the first few days to weeks after you get home - check the best before dates.
FAMIMA brand baking from FamilyMart - quite nice and individually packaged.
Dorayaki.  These are pretty much like cream or red bean filled pancakes - fluffy and delicious.
Baumkuchen spit cake.  Nice treat to remind you about a Japanese favourite.
Baumkuchen in a plastic tray.  This is a larger one, but you can buy small ones at the konbini.

All kinds of gum, candy, gummies, and other sugary treats.  The Japanese are really good with fruit flavours and are sugar masters.  These are some of the best types of things to bring back as they are compact and resist crushing.
Mintia sugarless mints and sweet candy.
Hard candies - ramune or Japanese lemonade is a favourite of mine.
Chewy milk candies are really good too.
Yogurt chews.  All kinds of flavours.  Puccho is a good brand and tasty too.
Fruit gummy candy of all kinds and packaging.  Always get a bag or two to eat later.
Three different flavours if you cannot decide!

Snacks Both Traditional and Modern
Japan has made all kinds of traditional preserved food snacks and crispy snacks of various types.  Some of these even have a modern take on them now.  Try some and bring back what your taste buds like.
White chocolate or green tea chocolate covered freeze dried strawberries.  An explosion of berry flavour and chocolate in your mouth.
Crackers of various types.  These fried rice / tapioca / prawn crackers are delish!  You can find these types of crackers and giant prawn crackers being sold in the konbini too.
Munchie mix Japanese style with little sardines.  You can get it without the fish too.
More chocolate covered strawberries and deep fried veggie chips.
These were delicious.  Umeboshi plums in sheet form.  I needed to bring back a box of these.

The Japanese are also chocolate masters.  Their famous Kit Kats to other kinds of chocolate are a must.  You can get a lot of this at the konbini or supermarket too.
Strawberry Cheesecake Kit Kat in a Mt. Fuji box.  This is actually one of my favourite types of Kit Kat as the strawberry flavour is really good.
What you get inside the box.
All kinds of strawberry chocolates.  Japanese strawberries are really good and their flavour is well represented.
More Kit Kats.
Strawberry and green tea chocolate biscuits.

Meltykiss chocolates are always good and make good souvenir gifts.
The green tea Meltykiss are awesome.
Bamboo shoot biscuits covered in chocolate - various flavours can be found.

Crunchy Snacks
All kinds of potato chips, and other crunchy fried snack food can be found.  Much of this makes for great snacks to go with beer or just with tea or a soft drink.  There is great variety to choose from.
These UHA croquette, sui mai, and freeze dried mushroom snacks. 
These little cheese biscuits are so cheesy and delicious.
All kinds of potato chips, sometimes you can find limited editions too.
These biscuits are a temporary meal replacements / energy bars.
Lots of battered and fried peanuts and crackers.
This type of potato chip is more common now, but was really cool when they were first introduced in Japan as they look like french fries.

Soups and Noodles
You can get a taste of real Japanese food too in the form of various kinds of soup and instant noodles with Japanese flavourings.  There are all types of these, with some really good soup and noodles available.
Amano freeze dried miso soup - awesome stuff.  They even have other kinds of stews and things - like camping food.
Variety snack pack of instant noodles that can sometimes be found in supermarkets like Ito Yokado or maybe Don Quijote.
You get five kinds of ramen inside, but they are all small small cups.  A real sampler.
The various konbini chains carry all kinds of deluxe instant cup noodles.  Sometimes they are limited edition (like the Nakiryu above) and sometimes they have a house brand that is really good as it represents a famous noodle shop (7-11 has a number of these).  Do check out their selections.
One last word on Japanese snacks and chocolates.  More and more of these are now available outside of Japan at your local Asian supermarket.  Do check out what you can buy at home - even if it costs a little more or double what it does in Japan.  Buy the stuff you can't find at home in Japan to make it more special.

More Japanese pop culture posts.

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Friday, November 30, 2018

Gundams and Giant Robots on the Anime Battlefield

Back in 2008, the Japan Science and Technology Agency published an estimated cost to build a Gundam.  The cost for the parts was $725,000,000 or three quarters of a billion bucks.  This doesn't include R&D, software, or engineering effort to create, assemble, and make the parts work together. Not adjusting for inflation, or anything else, that is still a pretty hefty bill even today.  Here are some estimated costs from the Internet about some other weapons systems / weapons for comparison.  This cost was probably for the RX-78-2 Model - not exactly a mass production model, but even if you cut the price in half for a production model that is still $300 million.
  • A Nimitz class carrier is $4.5 billion, with the newer Gerald R. Ford super carriers costing $9 billion.  This is without planes or missiles or bombs.
  • F-35 Lightning fighter is supposed to be around $80 million, once it is in full production, even though it is about $90 million right now.  
  • An F-15X or Super Hornet is in the $60 - $70 million range.  
  • An M1 battle tank is about $9 million, with a tank gun round for it running at $5,000.
  • A Hellfire anti-tank missile is $115 thousand.
  • A Tomahawk cruise missile is $1.5 million.
  • Rifle bullet is about $1.
From the numbers above, you can see that a giant robot is indeed pretty expensive.  An expensive weapons system like this needs to really prove its worth in battle.  And I'm pretty sure you are not going to make a giant robot with all of its tech cheaper than an F-35, so it is at least $100 million plus, but lets stick with $300 million.  Now we need to look at some of the attributes of a giant robot versus some other weapons systems to start looking at what its perceived effectiveness would be.

A twenty metre tall robot of human proportions is a big target (Gundam Unicorn height) and would probably weigh at least double or more than what a tank would weigh of the same size with thinner armour all around.  This would put it in the 100+ metric ton range, which is pretty heavy.  This machine is going to sink into the earth with every step and crack concrete when it runs (see Maus).  Fortunately, Gundams do have some advanced tech so they do not weigh this much.  When I wrote my mecha stories for Exocrisis Blue I did something similar with extreme mobility too.

Below are some specifications for a Gundam and some other weapons systems:
  • Gundam Unicorn is about 21 metres high, 4 metres wide with a base weight of 23 metric tons and a fully loaded weight of 43 tons (about the weight of a Russian T-80 tank).  I got these numbers from Gundam Wiki and I'm not sure how a Gundam doubles its weight when loaded (every weapon in the arsenal?)
  • M1 battle tank is 10 metres long, 4 metres wide, 2.5 metres high and weighs about 63 metric tons (heavier for the later versions).
  • F-15C fighter is 19.5 metres long, 13 metres wide, 5.63 metres high and weights about 12.7 metric tons empty, 20 tons loaded up.
So it looks like a Gundam is double the dimensions for a battle tank, is the length of an air superiority fighter, and has a weight that is in between that of a tank and a jet fighter.  A jet has many lightweight materials in it with powerful engines so that it can fly and carry both fuel and weapons.  A jet doesn't absorb or stop damage like a tank does with its heavy armour, but it does different amazing things like travel great distances, break the speed of sound, and carry big payloads.  Big anime robots, aka mobile suits are a cross between tanks and jets as they are very nimble for their size, can fly, and are more heavily armoured than a jet.  Big robots are a miracle of tech as they are packed full of electronics, software, advanced motors, amazing power plants, artificial muscles, alloys, and armour that is far more durable than Chobham in a tank.  I like giant robots, but you can tell that you have to really push the envelope to make them work like they do in an anime.  This includes Full Metal Panic, Aldnoah Zero, Gundam, Patlabor, etc.  Super robots like Mazinger are another story altogether.

In combat, big robots would need to be able to fulfill either a special mission like a raid or be able to take on massive numbers of conventional foes.  Super nimble robots able to dodge fire from tanks and take hits from missiles would work, but they have to be worth their price tag.  You can buy 30 M-1 tanks for the price of a production robot if it costs $300 million.  Any robot at this price has to be able to withstand hits from tank guns or anti-tank missiles.  It would suck for a $5 thousand dollar tank round or $100 thousand anti-tank missile to cripple a $300 million robot, especially as the robot is on the front line fighting, not like an aircraft carrier.  Gundams can take a huge amount of punishment and deal it out too, but you can imagine how many of these you could really afford, especially when you are talking about your enemies also having big robots to kill big robots at $300 million a pop.  BTW, Gundams are so effective, I don't know why you would build anything else in the various anime as they are like demi-god robots.

Big humanoid robots would also really not do well in built up urban environments - they would be like tanks - vulnerable to all kinds of enemy fire from cover, and hemmed in by the built-up environment.  In anime, they are generally too nimble in the best robots to be trapped, but that is anime for you.  So, big robots really are a kind of fun fantasy, especially when you imagine their weapons, power plants and armour employed in smaller conventional tanks or planes in a more cost effective package.  In the arms race, someone builds a better defence, but it doesn't take long for someone to build a better weapons to defeat that defence.

In the meantime, I still like big robot anime, as who wouldn't want to see one for real, and who wouldn't want to pilot one too!  Do see the giant Gundam in Odaiba if you are ever in Tokyo.  It is big and very cool.

More anime posts
More Japanese pop culture posts.

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Japanese Candy and Snacks Fall 2018

Over the course of the fall and early winter I found all kinds of tasty Japanese candy and snacks in local Asian supermarkets.  I'm not a huge fan of just any sweets which is why I generally avoid the Japan candy crates and boxes that have proliferated in the last few years.  This is the same for ramen, where I would rather order what I know I like or am interested in.  So, here is a selection of the treats I've had in the last little while.
An assortment I found in a Calgary supermarket.
This is a pretty tasty little green tea milk candy.  It is soft and chewy!  Fujiya knows how to make milk candy.
Mainly a ramune flavoured hard candy, but with some variations on the base flavour.  I like how the bag is kind of ramune bottle in shape.
Fried rice crackers and tapioca crackers.  Yummy, but the bag went really quick.
A couple of varieties of green tea chocolate in each box.  Smooth and matcha tasting.  There are also many kinds of green tea too so there is plenty of different flavour potentials.
Baumkuchen!  This is a German spit cake that is very popular in Japan and it is good.  I couldn't believe there were bags of fresh cake available.  You just have to eat it within a few days once the outer package is opened.
Mochi with different fillings.  These are from Taiwan, but still good.
Saw these tasty Japanese ice creams in the local market, but they were like $5 for a little cup.
Green tea ice cream.
Dorayaki! Tasty Japanese pancakes with a filling.  I bought the one in the middle with good old red bean.  Again, it is pretty cool to find fresh-ish baking.
I really like these cookies from Japan.  There are six flavours in this box and they are thin, crispy and delicious.
Another view of the individual packages of cookies.
Green tea cookies and some soft biscuits with fruit filling.  Both were good, but the green tea cookies were a bit on the too sweet for me end.

More Japanese pop culture posts.

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