Posts Tagged With: buddhism

All the Way to Hué

The dynast Nguyen Anh – he after whom nearly 50 million Nguyens are currently named — unified Vietnam in 1802, as I mentioned earlier, and the question arose as to whether he would keep the capital in Hanoi. One of the first foreign emissaries to present his credentials to Nguyen was the Mexican ambassador, Jose Valdes Bolano, who posed that very question. Nguyen famously replied, “No, Hué, Jose.”

(OK, I invented that conversation just to go for the cheap pun. If you don’t like it, go write your own damn blog.)

(Does it help if I tell you that the current Mexican ambassador to Vietnam is a woman named Sara Valdes Bolano? I didn’t think so.)

Nguyen did in fact make Hué the capital in 1802, and it remained such until the French showed up and started knocking over the furniture in 1945. It’s our first stop in what used to be South Vietnam, i.e. the part of the country south of the 17th parallel that defined the infamous DMZ. The contrast with Hanoi is striking, a legacy of the  contrasting paths of economic development that the North and the South took prior to the unification in 1975 when Saigon finally fell to the Communists. Hué has a population of less than 400,000, about one-twentieth the size of Hanoi, and yet has the feel of a fully developed Western city: a glitzy downtown with lots of neon and a thumping bar scene; lots of English language signage and stores that would be at home in any American mall; and (slightly) less random traffic. It’s an attractive town, threaded by the placid and scenic Huong (“Perfume”) River.

The historical centerpiece of Hué is the Imperial City, a.k.a. the Citadel, whose planning was begun by Nguyen around the time he took over. It sits near the river, facing southeast for both feng shui and political reasons, which is to say that it faces away from Beijing. In its heyday it was an enormous thriving complex, dominated by a fort with cannons but, very much like the Forbidden City in Beijing, containing over 150 buildings containing the residences of the royal family and their retinue, attendants, and hangers-on. It’s surrounded by a moat — formerly populated by crocodiles, per our tour lead Phil — nearly 10 km long.

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The Citadel started to fall on hard times when the Viet Minh (the forerunners of the Viet Cong) occupied it in 1947, and was pretty much devastated during the Tet Offensive in 1968 when both sides variously occupied or bombed the living hell out of it. There are only about 10 buildings left today. Fifty years later, the destruction is still a source of hard feelings among the families and descendants of the antagonists. It has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the subject of a fair amount of restoration. Much of what’s there is beautiful but it still contains a lot of overgrown fields.

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In keeping with a very Buddhist yin-yang, war-piece paradigm, we traded the Citadel for a nunnery, in this case a nearby small Buddhist nunnery housing ten nuns ranging in age from 16 to 73. Our guide was a 24 year old nun who had been there since the age of 16; she spoke no English (Phil interpreted) but served us a typically wonderful lunch — vegetarian this time — and answered our questions. You are well aware that male Buddhist monks shave their heads but it may never have occurred to you that the nuns do as well, though this is frequently hidden by their headpieces. It makes some of them surprisingly androgynous.  Our guide spends long days running errands, chanting, and going to college in town. She comes from a poor family — not uncommon among nuns and monks — and traveled a few hundred miles to be here.

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Religion, of course, is kind of a no-no in Communist countries, but the authorities here have lightened up a lot and about 20% of the population is observant of one or another religion, the most common (about 11% of the total population) being Buddhism as you would suppose. But there are others, perhaps the most oddball being Cao Dai (sometimes written Caodaism), which is a Bahai-like amalgam of all sorts of sorta-monotheistic stuff. It was founded right here in Vietnam in 1926 and claims something between 2 and 6 million adherents, almost all of them here. (If the higher number is accurate, there are as many Cao Dai followers in Vietnam as Jews in the US. No reports on whether they can find a decent corned beef sandwich.) Caodaists believe that the word of God has been revealed repeatedly through the writings of Earthbound prophets, whose numbers include Sun Yat Sen and — go figure this one — Victor Hugo. I mean, I know that Les Miz was a big hit, but c’mon.

I mention all this because we visited a Cao Dai temple, which I am happy to report was as loonball colorfully crazy as you would expect from a religion that encourages you to communicate with two of the their other revered figures — Joan of Arc and Vladimir Lenin — via seance. (If they ever adopt Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, I’m converting.)

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Our next religious experience was a somber one. Overseas Adventure Travel is part of the Grand Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that supports about 100 various social projects (schools, orphanages, etc.) in some 59 countries. They’ve given out something like $200 million, and a small part of each OAT trip cost is sent to them. Each such trip — and this is our sixth with OAT — includes a visit to a Grand Circle project, which yesterday was the Duc Son orphanage. Grand Circle has a provided computers, lockers, beds, sewing machines, and other stuff; we brought along gifts of school supplies. (Click on the thumbnails for the full size images.)

The orphanage houses 135 children, which is not exactly the right word since some stay into adulthood. The youngest are infants, and most have been abandoned. The place is run, heroically (there is no other word) by only 12 nuns. There used to be 18, but burnout is a real problem because the work is literally non-stop. The older kids help take care of the younger, which is the only way that such a place is even remotely workable. We were very, very impressed: the staff is nothing short of superhuman, and it shows in the kids’ behavior, which was raucous, cheerful, well-organized, and… normal. The kids receive Buddhist religious instruction, but not very extensively; although the staff are all strict vegetarians, they prepare and serve the kids non-vegetarian food in order to avoid any nutritional or developmental risks. That’s a big leap out the staff’s spiritual comfort zone and is one of the many measures of their extreme commitment. (The kids do get two “vegetarian days” per month, however.)

Of the 135 charges, 16 are handicapped in some way (we saw one Downs infant, being played with by a rambunctious non-handicapped boy of about 3). The orphanage receives gratis twice-weekly visit from a nearby doctor, another critical lifeline that makes the institution manageable, but only just. We left the place awed at the nuns.

Our final outing of the day (yes, this all happened yesterday) was a musical interlude. The Perfume River is home to a large number of touristy “dragon boats”, basically raft-like dual-hull houseboats decorated with dragon heads on the front.

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In this case Phil had chartered the boat and the owner family had brought aboard an ensemble Vietnamese folk musicians, who played some traditional stringed instruments, one of which appeared to be a Japanese 16-stringed koto. The other three were variously banjo- or violin-like, though each had only one or two strings. Here they are in action:

Note the gal who’s using teacups as castanets! They played and sang for about a half hour whilst we lay at anchor in the middle of the Perfume River. And when they finished they lit some candles in paper containers folded into lotus shapes, and one by one we set them adrift in the river…..

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Odds and Ends at the End

Today is our last day in Japan, and naturally the weather has turned beautiful now that Typhoon #18 has left the area. Alice is off on a garden walk so I thought I’d take the opportunity for a final trip post to capture some of the various odds and ends that I either forgot about or didn’t have time or space for during my evening blog rants. So in no particular order, here are some final Japanese peculiarities:

Save the Children. Everywhere we went, but particularly in the vicinity of Buddhist temples, we saw clusters of little stone “Buddha-ling” statues averaging about 18 inches tall, and all wearing little red bibs like dress-dolls. Here are a few:

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It turns out that dress-up dolls are not terribly off the mark. (Sometimes they sport little knit caps too.) These guys are called ojizosama, and they are the guardians of children, especially ones who died in childhood. Touchingly, the bibs and hats are to protect the spirits of the children in cold weather; apparently it can get a little chilly even in the afterlife. Ojizosama are also said to protect firefighters and travelers. They are plentiful: it is said that there are about 5000 in the Kyoto area alone. Certainly we saw them very frequently.

Karaoke. Japanese love karaoke, as you may know. There are karaoke bars aplenty in  the downtown areas in all the cities. There is even a big chain of them called Big Echo. Our tour lead Mariko sings very well, as I have mentioned, and so inevitably the subject of an after-dinner karaoke outing has come up more than once. It never actually came off, fortunately, as it would not be an exaggeration to report that Alice and I both recoiled in horror at the suggestion. Outside of entertaining our grandchildren with “Itsy Bitsy Spider” I cannot sing worth a damn, and Alice, despite her many talents (which include being able to pick out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, as I wrote about last time) has a singing voice that drives nightingales to suicide. Alice’s singing is like a drunk stumbling down a tonal dark alley, caroming off one pentatonic lamppost after another before finally being mugged into unconsciousness without ever having encountered a recognizable note. So no karaoke for us.

Vending Machines. Japanese seem to love vending machines almost as much as they love karaoke. The country is famous — some might say infamous — for having vending machines that sell just about everything, including some rather unsavory stuff. I don’t actually recall seeing anything of the latter, but we sure saw lots of snack machines (including ice cream, dispensed cold) and countless drink machines. It is not unusual to see ranks of drink machines, a half dozen side by side, selling soft drinks, hot and cold coffee and tea, and even beer. Among the more famous uniquely Japanese drinks are the unfortunately-named “Calpis” and “Pocari Sweat”. Both are uncarbonated. Calpis is rather like watery yogurt; Pocari Sweat, aptly enough, is a sports drink similar to Gatorade.

Kwik-E-Marts. They’re not actually called that (sorry, Simpsons fans), but Japan is awash in convenience stores. The Big Three in decreasing size order are 7-11 (yes, they’re here in a big way), Lawson’s, and Family Mart. It is difficult to walk down a city street in Japan without encountering at least one of them, and frequently all three. Despite their names Lawson’s and Family Mart are Japanese firms, though Lawson’s was originally founded in Cleveland and eventually became Circle K in the US. Their ubiquity here is nothing if not convenient, although “excessive” might also apply. They are more or less identical to each other, and other than the obvious Japanese nature of the shelf stock (and more polite staff), to their various American counterparts. (I was amused by the Japanese equivalent of those sketchy-looking hot dogs on a rotating grill that you see at American convenience stores; here you see sketchy-looking bowls of dumplings and noodles.) One interesting distinction, though, is that 7-11 in Japan also operates a bank. Sounds strange but it turns out to be a great, um, convenience for tourists, the reason being that most ATMs here will only accept debit cards from their affiliated bank, whereas 7-11 is agnostic. So if you’re a tourist needing to withdraw some cash from an ATM, your go-to place is a 7-11. And this is very handy indeed, since unless you are standing on top of Mt. Fuji you are unlikely to be more than a block or two from the nearest one.

There is no doubt more trivia of this nature that I will remember later, but this will do. Once I have all my photos culled and edited I will post a link here, but until then — sayonara and o genki de (“take care, see ya”).

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Instant Zen, and Rolling Your Own Sushi

We began the day with no little trepidation, occasioned by the proximity of the mysteriously-named Typhoon #18. We knew that we would be climbing a hillside in the town of Arashiyama to visit with Obayashi-san, the resident monk at Senkoji temple, and Mariko had hinted darkly at the ardors of ascending 200 steps to do so. The prospect of negotiating 200 stone steps in the rain did not appeal.

But the weather held, more or less, and the trek (such as it was) began with a more leisurely and scenic amble along the river at the foot of the mountain.

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Feeling serene yet?

The 200 steps turned out to be not such a big deal, sufficiently well spaced out along the few hundred foot ascent to avoid the feeling of an endless trudge. There was even a small shrine or two along the way to remind us of our goal (which was of course enlightenment, or at least the top of the damn hill).

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When we reached the temple our immediate gratification was a large temple bell, which we were allowed to ring.

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It produced a deep, sonorous, and very Asian GONNNNNGGGGGG, just like you’d hope. I was enjoying this, and had already rung the thing about six times when the attendant courteously informed me that you’re only supposed to ring it thrice. So now I’ve probably gone and summoned some polycephalic demon from whatever passes for Hell in Buddhism. (Which would explain the weather that befell us about nine hours later.)

The temple is occupied by the aforementioned monk Obayashi, who lives there with his family (Japanese monks are not celibate). Our gathering place was a typically spartan tatami room, albeit one with a spectacular panoramic view of the valley and town. The decor included samurai armor.

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Monk Obayashi was friendly and talkative, and with Mariko translating gave us an exposition and answered questions about Zen Buddhism and in particular the role of meditation in it. He opened the session with a lengthy chant, punctuated by a drumbeat that he tapped out while chanting. But we were to get into the act too: before beginning he handed out a phonetic cheat sheet so that we could chant along. It starts like this:

KAN JI ZAI BO SA GYO JIN HAN NYA HA RA MI

…and goes on like that for 26 more lines. I believe it is a blessing for our safe travels, but I am not actually certain of this.

He then gave us a quick lesson in how to meditate — how to breathe, empty your thoughts, etc. — and instructed us to begin doing so when he rang a bell. We would meditate, he informed us, for only five minutes or so.

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Now at this point in the narrative I should observe to those readers who do not know me personally that the readers who do know me personally have already collapsed in convulsive hysterical laughter at the prospect of me attempting Zen meditation. The only way I am going to empty my mind of thoughts is by physically removing my brain from my cranium, and my personal record for sitting motionless in quiet contemplation of nothingness is approximately 9 seconds. So let us leave the topic by conceding that I am not cut out to be a Buddhist monk, a revelation that surprises exactly none of my family or friends.

Having failed to achieve nirvana but at least enjoyed the monk’s well-meaning attempt at getting us there, we headed back down the mountain towards our next stop, which was lunch at the Heki residence in the nearby town of Kameoka. But not just any lunch: we received a sushi-making lesson and ate the product of our labors. The process started with our hosts producing big bowls of freshly-made hot rice, which we had to cool by stirring and waving fans.

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We were then instructed how to form it into little plum-sized balls and shown how to embed the various ingredients and toppings into them.

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It was a hoot, and as you can see we also got to dress like altar boys for some unexplained reason. This particular style of sushi — little balls instead of the familiar log-like rolls — is called temari, and was no doubt chosen for us because it is particularly simple to make. It was great fun, and if we can find the ingredients at home (difficult, but almost certainly not impossible) it will make a great novelty dinner party.

Later in the afternoon we visited yet another residence for a demonstration of traditional Japanese music. This was quite a treat, a husband and wife couple who are both local experts (and teachers) in three traditional instruments. Those are the koto…

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…the three-stringed shamisen…

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…and the shakuhachi (bamboo flute)…

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The gentleman playing the shakuhachi has not just arrived from a wild party, nor is he painfully shy. In a private setting it is not in fact required to wear a wicker basket on one’s head whilst playing the instrument; he was demonstrating how he plays in public when soliciting donations for his Buddhist temple. The wooden box on his front is the equivalent of a busker’s hat, for collecting alms for the temple; he will walk the streets and play, and the hat — which he can see through — represents the boundary between the secular and spiritual worlds. It separates him from mundane reality while he is playing for the gods. It’s also a big hit at parties.

The music was haunting and beautifully played. Afterwards, we all got the opportunity to play the instruments, with pretty much zero success as you’d expect. With one exception: here is Alice — and I swear this is true — successfully picking out “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” on the shamisen, which may well be some kind of first.

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“….”E-I-E-I-OOOOOO…”

Dinner this evening was in Kyoto’s Gion distract, a.k.a. the geisha district. In Kyoto, geishas are known as geikos — no insurance company jokes, please — and their apprentices are called maikos. You see quite a few of them out and about in the Gion, complete with white makeup — or rather, you do when you are not in the middle of a typhoon. We saw a few in the street en route to dinner, when the rain was just beginning — my bell-ringing transgression of earlier in the day having finally caught up with me — but an hour or two later this was the scene when we left the restaurant:

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Full-bore torrential downpour. With luck the storm will pass tonight so that we will have decent weather tomorrow, which is our last day here. Alice will be going on a garden walk (weather permitting), but I have few plans beyond some last minute gift shopping so there may not be much to report in a final post. We’ll be home in roughly 48 hours. This has been another great trip.

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Alternating Religions

And the score after today’s outing is tied at Buddhism 2, Shinto 2! By which I mean that we visited two Buddhist temples and two Shinto shrines.(Buddhist temple names all end in -ji; Shinto shrines don’t, and the shrines themselves almost have a torii gates of larger or smaller size somewhere in the vicinity. (More on those later.) Also, please note that Buddhist places of worship are “temples” whereas Shinto places are “shrines”. Anyway, let’s begin:

Our first stop today was the Todaiji temple, home to another one of those giant Buddhas of which the Japanese seem very fond. It’s large, impressive, and very old. Here’s an outside view.
inari-001The great hall was built in the 8th century to house the giant Buddha, i.e. this guy.

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He’s made of bronze and stands — or more accurately sits — nearly 50 ft (15 m) tall; his eyes alone are a hair over a meter across. In fact his nostrils are 20 inches across, a fact made much of by the locals. In one corner of the temple interior stands a wooden column with a 20-inch diameter hole through it at floor level, and the tongue-in-cheek legend is that if you make a wish and successfully crawl through the hole, your wish will be granted. (Sure beats jumping off a five-story platform, doesn’t it?) There were many schoolchildren visiting today, and more than a few tried their luck, with varying degrees of success, getting through the hole. I would only have attempted it had my secret wish been to be cut out of a wooden hole by a Japanese fire department.

Buddha is flanked by two other large deities, carved from wood and covered in gold leaf. This shot gives a slightly better sense of scale of the effigies.

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The other thing that Todaiji is known for is deer, about 1200 of them in fact. They roam the grounds unfettered, variously ignoring or accosting visitors. You can buy bags of feed for them (some sort of cracker), so needless to say they’re pretty brazen. Their attentions are not always appreciated, for example by this guy:

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…although some people take full advantage of this situation, such as this girl taking the first “deer selfie” I have ever seen.

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The deer seemed pretty unimpressed.

Alternating religions, we moved on from the Todaiji temple to the Kasugataisha shrine, whose claim to fame is stone lanterns. Lots of stone lanterns.

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We were told there were about a thousand of them, mostly standing about 6 feet tall. They are maintained in part via donations, and so in addition to the lanterns themselves there is also a wall full of names (in Japanese script, of course) listing the donors on wooden slats. (It reminded me a great deal of the ranks of little brass plaques on synagogue walls. I  wondered if one of the slats translated as “Stone lantern donated by the Goldfarbs in loving memory of Isador and Sadie.”)

Kasugataisha also includes a shrine to Shinto’s god of love, whose name I cannot seem to unearth. Both locals and visitors pay homage by hanging little wooden prayer boards at the shrine. These are common at every Shinto shrine, but the distinction here is that they look like valentines:

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There are thousands of them, not all written in Japanese. My favorite was one in English whose prayer read, in its entirety, “May you have a short, explosive wedding and a long, peaceful marriage.”

Then it was back to Buddhism, as we drove a short distance into the picturesque town of Nara to eat lunch, walk around some side streets, and of course visit a temple. Here’s an old traditional Japanese pharmacy, peddling all sorts of traditional herbal remedies that can increase virility, cure eczema, and possibly make your ears fall off.

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Those red balls hanging on a string are a good luck charm and are very common in this area. Their shape is actually a very stylized curled up monkey, whose presence apparently wards off evil.

Then there’s the temple, another big one. Kofukuji is famous for this five story pagoda.

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I confess that the structure on top looks to me suspiciously like a cell phone tower. But since the temple is over 1300 years old, this seems unlikely. Kokufuji is quite well known;it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, one of about two dozen in the Kyoto area. Its fame stems from both its size and its history of moving around. It was built in the year 669, but elsewhere near Kyoto, then dismantled and moved in 672, then dismantled and moved again in 710. Hopefully it’ll stay put this time.

Our final stop of the day, in keeping with our “alternating religions” theme, was the most spectacular Shinto shrine of all: Fushimi Inari. Inari is definitely one of the heavyweight Shinto goddesses, being in charge of rice, tea, and sake, not to mention fertility and worldly success. With a portfolio like that she gets a lot of attention. She uses foxes as her earthly messengers — foxes eat birds who are trying to eat the rice from the fields — and so her shrines have a lot of fox statues around them. (Foxes get a lot of respect in Japan.) In addition, for reasons that were not explained to us, the shrine is a mecca for students who are prying to pass their exams. The legend is, that if you fold 1000 origami cranes, you will have luck in your exams. And so here are the colorful paper products of dozens of not hundreds of supplicatory students, each folding a thousand paper cranes :

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Pardon my cynicism, students, but wouldn’t you have a better chance of passing your exams by studying instead of spending countless hours folding paper birds? Seriously.

Fushimi Inari is marked by the typical torii gates found at every Shinto shrine, e.g.

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The distinction here is that Fushimi Inari has five thousand of them, dating back to the year 711. You walk a path that is a mile or two long, up the side of a low mountain, and pass through countless of these things.

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You might be wondering about the writing on the columns (usually on the downhill side, as it happens). And the answer is (you’re gonna love this): corporate sponsorships. Yep, even a multi-portfolio’d goddess like Inari needs corporate lucre to keep her shrine in good order. Every now and then, as you trek up the mountainside through the arch after arch, you will encounter one whose writing is partly in Western characters. And when that happens, you will see that it reads something like MIYAZAKI LLC www.miyazaki.co.jp. No, I am not kidding.

Anyway, it is quite a sight, and also quite a hike uphill on a hot and humid day. But is an extraordinary and impressive installation that attracts an enormous numbers of visitors (and makes it difficult to get a photo that is not crowded with people). The town below the shrine has something of a carnival atmosphere as a result, with food stands and souvenir vendors lining the main street. There is a sea of people, and many dress for the occasion: there is a liberal smattering of both men and women in traditional garb, such as these young women in kimonos.

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We returned to our hotel exhausted and sweaty. We forewent dinner with our tour group since we had come to feel that in our 2 1/2 weeks in Japan to date we had consumed an inadequate amount of sushi. Mirako recommended a nearby sushi restaurant, so we took advantage of that. Tomorrow is another early start and long day.

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