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Field of flowers in Naka Furano in Hokkaido. Photo fused with clouds

Field of flowers in Naka Furano in Hokkaido. Photo fused with clouds

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Colour Your World in Furano

By Denis Plamondon

Photo: By Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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Furano is great multi-season destination. Located in a wide valley, some 140 kilometers east of Sapporo, this “lavender country” has something to offer everyone in each season. In winter, Furano promotes its cosy resorts and powdery snow ski slopes (international standards) to all skiers, snowboarders and cross-country skiers alike. In summer, activities range from canoeing, rafting, horseback riding and hiking to lifetime experiences like hot-air ballooning. There are also many farms, factories and a spectacular array of flowers to discover.

This region of Hokkaido most likely derives its name from the Ainu word Fu-Ra-Nui – referring to the sulfuric smell of the river. When making a hotel reservation, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that Furano has two districts: JR Station, accommodation and civic facilities are located in the downtown district, while many hotels, bars and restaurants are found in the Kitanomine district across the river, close to ski slopes.

No matter where you chose your base, most places are easily accessible with local transportation. The Kururu Shuttle Bus offers a day pass during the summer, which allows you to get on and off at the main attractions in a single day if you begin your journey early in the morning. Depending on where you’re staying, a good place to start is at the Highlands Furano with its radiant fields of lavender and refreshing hikes through the forest. Next en route is the Furano Winery where you can visit the cave and sample a variety of wines; you will probably end up buying a few bottles, the labels are particularly beautiful. Then, you can treat yourself to a fondue made from local cheese at the Wine House and benefit from a fantastic panorama of Furano. For fans of Japanese TV dramas, you can also enjoy a visit to the set of “From the Northern Country” which is filmed on location in Hokkaido.

If you’re going to Furano to admire the celebrated lavender fields and the beauty of their deep purple signature, you should plan a visit between mid-July and the beginning of August before harvest. In any case, a trip to Farm Tomita in Naka Furano will certainly be a highlight. This is where you’ll find the famous rainbow of colorful flowers advertised on the cover of most Hokkaido magazines. Lavender gives a pleasant experience with its unique aroma and color, but did you know that it has a fragrant taste as well? Find out more on your own and don’t miss the ice cream at Farm Tomita!

Pension Lavender is a lovely place to stay. For a delicious and inexpensive dinner, the Tirol Lamb BBQ next to Snow Flake Lodge is recommended, both owned by cheerful ski instructor Kojima Hisayuki. If you’re looking for a fun and friendly bar to hang out in the evening, Bar and Dining Ajito is your choice. Apparently, Aussie’s and Japanese warm up the place during the winter season. Lastly, don’t miss out on the abundance of sweet succulent melons and other fresh fruits, vegetables and local products.

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Furano Valley: View from Farm Tomita in Naka Furano, Hokkaido

Furano Valley: View from Farm Tomita in Naka Furano, Hokkaido

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Lavender field in Highland Furano, Hokkaido

Lavender field in Highland Furano, Hokkaido

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Butterfly in Highland Furano

Butterfly in Highland Furano

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Lotus flowers in a lovely pond in Highland Furano, Hokkaido

Lotus flowers in a lovely pond in Highland Furano, Hokkaido

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Mushroom in Highland Furano, Hokkaido

Mushroom in Highland Furano, Hokkaido

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Wineyards in Furano, Hokkaido

Wineyards in Furano, Hokkaido

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Wine Barils in Furano Winery, Hokkaido

Wine Barrels in Furano Winery, Hokkaido

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Cellar in Furano Winery in Hokkaido

Cellar in Furano Winery in Hokkaido

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Wine labels with typical Furano colours in Hokkaido

Wine labels with typical Furano colors in Hokkaido

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Rainbow of colourful flowers in Naka Furano, Hokkaido

Rainbow of colorful flowers in Naka Furano, Hokkaido

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Sunflower field in Naka Furano, Hokkaido

Sunflower field in Naka Furano, Hokkaido

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Shiraoi Hokkaido Ainu's Title NO2

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Exploring Ainu’s Wisdom and Crafts in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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When one thinks of Hokkaido, many images surge from the conception of Japan’s northernmost island. Notions of nature, wilderness, mountains, volcanoes, large farms, snow, ice carvings, festivals and ski resorts easily come to mind. So are major events like the Winter Olympics of Sapporo in 1972 or last year’s G8 Hokkaido Summit. If one scratches the surface a little further, one might identify the name of the indigenous people of Japan. After all, the Ainu have been living here for several thousands of years.

On the other hand, we’re probably unaware of the long history of discrimination and the chronicled inferiority complex felt by the Ainu themselves which almost led to their extinction. As a matter of fact, many stories depict the Ainu-Wajin (Japanese) relation as a stream of repulsion for a culture of lesser importance, second rate and not worth keeping. The Ainu elders even stopped teaching their native language to their children to enable them to more easily integrate into mainstream Japanese culture. The embarrassment of being Ainu seems particularly ironic when we know its meaning: Ainu means “human” or a “respectable human”. The government only recognized the rights of this great nation in 1997 with the rather ineffective Ainu Cultural Promotion Law to describe their culture as “unique”. But it takes more than an exhibition of fabrics and other crafts to preserve a culture; teaching language and transmitting values are instrumental to keep the Ainu nation alive. (Please read an insightful interview with Hasegawa Osamu ). According to a 2006 census, the Ainu population in Hokkaido accounted for 23,782 inhabitants while between 2,500 and 10,000 individuals were estimated to be living in Tokyo. This number is probably higher since many are unaware of their origin or hide their true identity. At first glance, one may get discouraged with such an outcome, but the situation has started to change for the Ainu people, like many other things in Japan.

In addition to dedicated ‘backstage’ activists, proud and talented Ainu artists are trying to promote and revitalize their culture to a new level by transcending their folklore: Oki and his Ainu Dub Band are gaining world recognition; and Ainu Rebels led by Mina Sakai are known for fusing traditional music with dance, rock and hip-hop. The international solidarity between aboriginals from around the world, who hold regular meetings every year, is no stranger to the emancipation of Ainu culture. In September 2007, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Japanese Government finally passed a bill which recognizes the Ainu as “the indigenous people of Japan”.

Keeping Ainu Culture Alive:

On 3 October 2009, Kaha:wi, a Mohawk dance company from Canada, is performing at the Red Brick Warehouse, in Yokohama. The theater company will share the stage with Ainu Rebels in a show called: Dance with the Earth. To mark the occasion, Professor Hiroshi Nakagawa of Chiba University will give a lecture on the teachings of Ainu language. In Tokyo, the Restaurant Rera Cise (House of Wind) in Nakano is also a good place for the diffusion of Ainu culture and cuisine.

The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi:

Shiraoi is a small town located some 20 kilometers west of Noboribetsu. There are a few hotels in the area, but Ryokan Okita, just a few minutes from the JR Station, is a good recommendation if you are looking for convenient budget accommodation. The Ainu Museum actually offers more than only a museum. An interesting display of houses (cise) was erected to represent a typical Ainu village. A series of music and dance performances are scheduled every day which allows visitors a great opportunity to learn about this rich and unique culture. Lively entertainers dance around a rectangular fire in the middle of the house with typical instruments, such as a tonkori (plucked string instrument). A woman plays a mukkuri (mouth harp) with rhythms that evoke the Inuits in northern Canada. They take great care to perform correctly as it is said that most Ainu songs are sacred and are often sung to keep evils spirits away.  Performers proudly wear traditional Ainu costumes and headbands embroidered with organic patterns, also designed with the rational of protecting the wearer from evil. If you would like to learn more about Ainu patterns, please visit the superb website by Deborah Davidson, Project U-E-Peker.

Watch an interesting interview with Mina Sakai of Ainu Rebels

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Shiraoi Hokkaido Ainu's houses (Cise)

Shiraoi Hokkaido - Ainu Houses (Cise)

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Ainu's costumes and culture presentation in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Ainu traditional wear and cultural performance - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Ainu's dance around a fire place in indigenous house, Shiraoi. Hokkaido

Ainu dance around a hearth in an indigenous house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Women Musician playing the tonkori (plucked string instrument) in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Musician playing the tonkori (plucked string instrument) - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Ainu's woman musician playing the "bombard" in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Ainu musician playing the "mukkuri" - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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2 women wearing Ainu's costumes with baby bed in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Women wearing Ainu dresses singing a baby to sleep - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Inside an Ainu's house in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Inside an Ainu house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Fishes are being smoked in the ceiling of an Ainu's house in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Fishes are being smoked inside Ainu house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Wall patterns and tatoo on one hand in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Wall patterns and tatoos (hand in photo) - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Women executing Ainu mats'work in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Women weaving an Ainu mat - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Title Ainu Article

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Ainu are the first inhabitants of Hokkaido, a major island located  in northern Japan. In a coming article, I will be writing  about the museum of Shiraoi and its enactment of Ainu’s great, but yet endangered culture.

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Warm Welcome to Noboribetsu

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Noboribetsu: Fostering Health from Hell

By Denis Plamondon

Photos: Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

Noboribetsu Onsen (登別温泉) is definitively a place to visit if you’re planning a trip to Hokkaido, especially if geothermal activities are included on your agenda! This small town hosts some of the most renowned hot springs in the world. The resort area, entrenched in its mountainous landscape, is only 8 kilometers away from Noboribetsu JR train station and is easily reached by bus in 15 minutes.

When you arrive, you will soon discover the calming effects of this intense geothermal destination. Most of the hotels and inns are equipped with outstanding o-furo bathing facilities, and some even specialize in comprehensive health programs. You can choose from a wide variety of therapeutic and healing experiences, including spa massages and fitness activities. No matter the choice you make, one thing is certain – with water temperatures varying from 45 to 90 degrees Celsius, nature is supplying one of its primary substances in full force. In fact, in Noboribetsu (which means: a river with dark colors in the native Ainu language: nupur-pet, nature is venerated as much as it is feared; devils and demons are considered an evocation of the ominous spirits that rise from Jigokudani or Hell’s Valley, which is one of the main attractions in the region. At the end of August, Noboribetsu Onsen organizes its famous annual Jigoku Matsuri .

Hell’s Valley is proof of the incredible rawness, harshness and power of such an inhospitable environment. The extreme heat and corrosive minerals that rise from the ground prevent vegetation from growing. As visitors walk along a wooden path that cuts across steaming puddles, sulfuric streams and hot gases spewing from deep within the earth, they are left with a strange feeling of amazement and admiration for this barren landscape – one can almost imagine walking along the back of a dragon!

Several hiking trails are well indicated just beyond Hell’s Valley. You will find yourself suddenly trekking through lush vegetation and listening to the sounds of the forest as you climb towards an observatory that overlooks a scorching lake. Your stroll will then continue past blistering mud pools on the way to a “natural foot spa” in the forest which is made from a cascading hot spring. It’s a great place to relax and bathe your feet.

Back in Noboribetsu Onsen town, you can ascend higher into the mountains via a cable car to see spectacular Kuttara Lake, a perfectly round caldera that is now filled with deep blue water. A cable car ticket will also give you access to a bear park where more than a hundred brown bears live in protective captivity; although these wonderful creatures are impressive to see, one can but feel distressed to see so many crammed in a small arena begging for food from tourists. Atop, you will also find the world’s largest brown bear museum and an Ainu museum which demonstrates the close relationship between the two, as Ainus’ worshiped the bear as a God.

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Engraved stone in Jigokudani, the Hell's Valley of Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Engraved stone at Jigokudani, Hell's Valley of Noboribetsu in Hokkaido

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White landscape in Hell's Valley, Jigokudani, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

White landscape of Hell's Valley Jigokudani in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

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Story of a man who came to collect raw material for gun powders. His eyesight was healed by the contact with the water from the hot spring. An altar was builted as a grateful gesture.
Story of a man who came to collect raw material for gun powder. His eyesight was healed by contact with water from the hot spring. An altar was built as a gesture of gratitude.

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Altars are always close to nature manifestation. Jigokudani Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Altars are never very far from natural manifestations, at Jigokudani Noboribetsu in Hokkaido

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This geyser gushes its boiling water out from Jigokudani in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

This geyser gushes out boiling water at Jigokudani in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

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Boiling mud in the Oku no Yu pound. Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Boiling mud, Oku No Yu Pond at Noboribetsu in Hokkaido

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Oyunuma thermal lake, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Oyunuma thermal lake and smoke rising out of Mount Hiyori near Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

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Pathway along the Oyunuma river in Noboribetsu Hokkaido

Pathway along Oyunuma River in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

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Thermal waterfall in Oyunuma river and natural pool for footbathing, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Thermal waterfall at Oyunuma River and natural pool for footbathing, Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

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Unbearable conditions for noble animals in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido. Fog is due to low cloud, not to hot spring reaction.

Unbearable conditions for noble animals in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido. Fog is due to low clouds, not to hot spring reaction.

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Your comments are most welcomed.

Here is a link to Tourism office of  Noboribetsu Onsen Web site.

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Enormous blue demons welcome you in Oyako kisou, Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

Enormous blue demons welcome you in Oyako kisou, Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaido

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Date Samurai Matsuri: Hokkaido

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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Opening of the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri

Opening of the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri

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Memento of the Bushido (The Way of the Warrior)

There are many festivals in Japan and finding one in Hokkaido isn’t hard! Japanese enjoy celebrating past events and observing important anniversaries. Hokkaido is no exception to this fervor. When planning a trip to Hokkaido, consider that many events run during the peak summer season, thus the next question on your checklist may easily read: are their festivals worth the effort of traveling so far a field?

This is a question we asked locals at Lake Toyako about the Date Samurai Matsuri (1-2 August 2009). Some responses were uncertain and unenthusiastic. One senior lady we met said with a quiet smile: “when you’ve seen it once …” Nevertheless, trusting a good recommendation and our own intuition, we set-off by train for the town of Datemombetsu … and, we were pleased with the outcome of this 2-day festival. The events of the first day conveniently took place in front of the Datemombetsu JR train station, from 6 pm onwards. Citizens, visitors and contributors alike were greeted by the organizers in typical festival fanfare during the opening ceremnoy, including a sacred blessing and sutra from a visiting monk. A representative from each of the 10 participating floats gregariously introduced themselves to an equally receptive crowd. As the procession of floats, dancers and performers paraded down the town’s main street, onlookers were treated to the usual aromas and resonances of summer in Japan – whiffs of yakitori on the grill, the drum beat of taiko 「太鼓」 – always a great way to stimulate the senses and nourish the soul.

The following day consisted of a historical re-enactment of a samurai procession preparing for battle. The event was short from about 3-4 pm, and held in a large park called “Date Rekishi no Mori” (伊達歴史の森) some 20 minutes walking distance from the JR station. (Nonetheless, it was prudent to arrive early to secure a good spot.) This colorful and imposing production involved as many actors in traditional costume as there were spectators. Armies of samurai (侍) and heavily armored cavaliers paraded across the makeshift battlefield to congregate atop a hill, while an array of banners and flags fluttered in the background and gunmen on bended-knee fired shots into the air from vintage weapons. A contingent of samurai warriors, wearing outfits from the “bushido” (武士道) era, followed with their squires and fabulously adorned horses. Each took a turn to enter the arena and demonstrate their respective skills. The ceremony reached its climatic finale with the lighting of a bonfire and cries for the triumphant return of samurai armies from the supreme commander known as the sodaisho (総大将)or shogun (将軍).

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Order of cart presentation in the parade of 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri

Order of floats in the opening parade during the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri

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Pushcart at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Pushcart-float at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Black and white banner at the 209 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Colourful banners at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Warriors with their red banner at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Warriors in vibrant red at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Archery at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

A group of archery apprentices choreographically take aim with the grace inherent to this sport. 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido.

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Re-enacting old gun shooting at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Re-enacting gun shooting at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Personalizing the "Bushido" or "Way of the Warrior" in the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Personalizing the "Bushido" or "Way of the Warrior" at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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A proud and young samurai? 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

A proud and young samurai at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Cavalry and ground army presentation at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Cavalry and ground army presentation at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Inspection and presentation of orders at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

Inspection and presentation of samurai sections at the 2009 Date Samurai Matsuri in Hokkaido

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Please share your comments with me:

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Next article: Discover the Geothermal Region of Noboribetsu

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Datemombetsu Samurai Matsuri

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Archery Demonstration at the Date Samurai Matsuri, Datemombetsu Hokkaido

Archery Demonstration at the Date Samurai Matsuri, Datemombetsu Hokkaido

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The town of Datemombetsu held a colorful annual festival in early August. The Date Samurai Matsuri enacts scenes of the Bushido era and it is worth the journey. Please come back soon for a report on this particular event.

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