Irishman Walking (Stage 1 Chapter 14)

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic
Irishman Walking is about my walking the coastal roads of Japan through a series of summer, winter, spring, and autumn stages. Stage 1 began in Cape Soya in Hokkaido in the summer of 2009, and ended in Noshiro City in Akita Prefecture seven weeks later. This summer (2012), Stage 8 started at Shibushi Port in Kagoshima Prefecture on the southern island of Kyushu, and ended in the city of Fukuoka six weeks after setting off. Stage 9 is planned to start from Fukuoka City this winter and will end at Hiroshima in January 2013. The stage is planned to last for five weeks.

Submitted: July 17, 2013

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Submitted: July 17, 2013

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By Michael Denis Crossey

 

7 August, 2009: It was around seven-fifteen when I finally hit the road. The light from the sun increased with the passing minutes. A little ways off I could see more clearly with each step that the mountains were now dark with foliage. With in an hour my war with the tunnels was on again. The first tunnel of the day ran for 765 meters, which for me was too long for so early in the morning. But there it was and that was that. The tunnel was nowhere nearly as long as the monster job I practically ran though last night to get it over with as quickly as possible.

Just as I was about to enter the tunnel my eyes feel on a middle-aged woman sitting down by the quay. "Perhaps waiting for her husband's fishing boat to return.” I mumbled as I tried to get my mind away from the walk through the tunnel. "Did waiting patiently like that harden these local women in someway?" I wondered. Then again, perhaps they woman wound not need to wait so long. She could easily contact one another with their pocket phones to talk over his arrival times, or whatever. I stopped momentarily to observe a glittering pin far out on the sea, and to jot down a few notes before I started on the tunnel. A fishing boat, no doubt, was rapidly approaching the shoreline, but it was still a good ways off from where the woman sat. Soon she would help her husband pull his little fishing boat up onto the beach. “What would their first words be to one another?” I wondered again, as I turned to make my way along the road. Whatever was said, I suspected they would talk about the nights catch and the calm sea, and perhaps what was for dinner tonight. As I put away my notebook, I could now make out the shape of the outboard engine on the boat, very soon they would be together. "A lucky man!" I mumbled to myself as I turned to face the cold gray tunnel that waited on me. "It was nice to have someone wait on you!"

‘It’s by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them’ (Ernest Hemingway). Like with tiny speck of the fishing boat far out on the sea, only this time on the road far in the distance I could see something moving, but I was not quite sure what it was. After a short while I could see it was a cyclist fast approaching, and I could also see that the bike was well loaded up with camping gear. It was around the middle of the tunnel when our paths met. Tunnels were not the best of places to converse with anyone in, in any language, or at any time. There were the usual sort of greetings, and questions on where each of us coming from going to, and so forth. However, I think we both understood that the location did little justice, to either of us, and with the best of wishes to one another, we started off once more in our respected directions.

Soon I was once again alone on the long hard road lost in my own thoughts. As I emerged from my dark and damp dungeon, a colorful little sign greeted me: 'Kamoenai Village', and located in Furuu District in Shiribeshi, the village had an estimated population of 1,100. Though, every five years from the 1995 census to the present, the population had been in steady decline

A little before entering the tunnel that I had just tramped out off, another sign told me that the village was some twenty kilometers away. As I stood for a while looking at the scenery about me, I could make out two more tunnels up ahead of me. I suspected one of them to be a massively long job, which also kind of told me that it was not going to be a good day. A road sign facing in the opposite direction informed me that I had left the village of Shakotan, famous for its sea urchin fishery, some thirty kilometers back, and which offered me some little sense of accomplishment. “Perhaps it wasn't going to be such a bad day after,” I hope as I made my way along the road, while also keeping my eyes open for speeding traffic.

Soon another long uninteresting tunnel to deal with appeared. Daitenyu Tunnel, which opened in March of 1996, was just over 635 meters of sheer boredom. It was difficult to think of anything good to say about the massive tunnels, though it could have been worse. As was often the case, a bridge preceded the tunnel. The Daitenguhashi Bridge opened was opened about a year earlier than the tunnel in December in Heisei 7 (1995). The couple of hundred meters of openness and beauty that lay between the two tunnels where the bridge spanned was to me similar of a sugar cube given to a horse for performing a trick well. In less time than it would take for a sugar cube to dissolve in warm water, the beautiful scenery was gone as a neared the second tunnel.

It was here at the mouth of the Sainokawara Tunnel that I took a last look back at the little heaven I was about to leave. The Sainokawara Tunnel was opened in March of 1996 and ran for 1,834 meters. The tiny bridge of the same name preceded the tunnel. The bridge was opened in the same month and year as the Daitenguhashi Bridge, in 1995.

Whenever I was within about 300 meters from exiting the Sainokawara Tunnel the bright view of the sea hit me square no. If I did not know any better, I would have sworn that the tunnel led right on into the Nihon Kai (Japan Sea). For a moment, too, some crazy thought entered my head as if the tunnel was trying to tell me something, as if it had been reading my mind: "Alright! I've had enough of you, too. So this is where you are getting out. Now fucking swim." Just then my wondering thoughts were broken by the appearance of a cyclist heading towards me in the opposite direction. I quickened my pace to reach the tunnel's mouth at the same time as the cyclist, for I did not want for us to have to exchange words in the tunnel like before. As luck had it, out timing could not have been better as we reached the mouth of the tunnel together.

Unlike myself and certainly unlike how I felt, the cyclist was not what I would have called a young man, but somewhere on the tail end of his days. The sweat poured from his face and his arms were exposed under the blistering sun, which had made a guest appearance this last hour. "Where were you headed?" he asked me, together with a host of the usual questions. And like other occasions when I stopped to chat with a fellow traveller, the usual formalities were exchanged and snapshots posed for. "Be careful of the oncoming traffic," I told him with a smile. "The were some crazy drivers about." None of my fellow travelers wanted to stop and talk for very long, myself included, for we all had some hidden schedule important to no one but ourselves to stick to.

I watched the fellow until he had cycled out of sight in the direction from whence I had come. I knew the roads ahead of him that he had to face, and he knew the roads that I was tramping towards, too. We were both wise men of the roads that had learnt on the job so to speak! "Would he really make it to Soya Misaki?" I wondered. "Of course, he will." I concluded as I turned and continued my way along the long hard road ahead of me as the sun continued to beat down.

For a while I thought about the two cyclists I had seen today. Both of the little encounters had been only a short distance and time apart, but I felt both cyclists were unaware of one another heading in the same direction. “Mmm!” It was a shame I thought to myself. Traveling together might have made their time on the roads more memorable if not in meaning. Both of them were around the same age, or more past that ambiguous term 'middle-aged', than not. Just where the first of the two had come from, I had not asked, or perhaps because I forgot to ask. After all, it was in the middle of the Sainokawara Tunnel when we stopped to chat for a short while. The second was from Sapporo, and like he said, he was making the rounds of this beautiful island like most of the people I met. At that moment it dawned on me, too, that he was riding a female touring bike. Then again, perhaps it was less strange that the old mamachari (old wife’s bicycle) that Michiko M had been riding when she called out to me near Okimi Bridge quite a number of kilometers back

Not wishing to dispense with such useless thoughts as I enjoyed thinking about the people I met here and there along my way, the need to sit down and rest for a while proved more pressing than anything just now. I threw off my backpack at the entrance of the Madoiwa Bridge where I would soon enter. As my little pot of water was set to boil on the tiny burner, and with some tissues in hand, I ducked into some bushes nearby to lose weight of a more personal nature. In a little while I was sitting down by the bridge that preceded the Madoiwa Tunnel to enjoy a nice cup of freshly boiled tea. Across the bridge the tunnel seemed to stare back at me. It was opened in March of 1992, and ran for 565 meters, or just about the length of a tunnel that I could tolerate without much sweat, or stress.

Anchored far out at sea a strange looking ship set. Giant cranes about its deck towered up towards the heavens. Not that I could say for sure, but to me it resembled a small oil platform. Japan was not an oil producing country, so I kind of doubted the exact nature of the vessel. Just as I emerged out from another tunnel, a road sign told me roughly my location, and where I was headed. "Thirty-eight kilometers! That would make Wanai more than a days tramp away." I mumbled to myself as I went over my maps trying to see the distance on paper. The road sign also told me that Central Komoenai was four kilometers further on. Once again I wondered about the word 'Central'. "That's so annoying!" It seemed so strange to me for the word to be used whenever there was still so far to go, and it was not the first time that I saw this word before the name of the village today.

Not so long away from the tunnel and across a bridge lay the tiny sleeping town of Kawashira. The only things noticeable were the workmen drilling into the tarmac on the road leading into the town. Some meters beyond the workmen were a group of children being taught having snorkeling lessons in a little enclosure concreted off from the open sea. As I stopped to look at the children having fun with their lessons alone motorcyclist rode past in the opposite direction. Perhaps he too was on his way to catch a ferry back to the island of Honshu. How I missed my own wheels, a large American motorbike stored away in a cold damp garage in Tokyo awaiting my return.

To my surprise, the motorcyclist turns around and rides over to where I was standing. It was none other than Kimiko from Osaka who spoke to me for a short while yesterday. She was on her way back to Otaru where she hoped to pick up the ferry that would take her and her motorbike back to Osaka. Kumiko's trip was at an end, and then I guess it was back to work and the grind and toil of city life for her once more.

"Have you eaten?" Kumiko asked me in Japanese, with a beautiful smile to greet me. I replied that I was keeping an eye open for a place where I might buy something at for that very purpose. It was not easy to see myself, or whether being on the road so long made me look as though I was undernourished. A tramp at heart, I was in many respects homeless into the bargain. In fact, baring my motorbike and a couple of bicycles in Tokyo, I never owned anything solid, like, land or property. My life in Japan involved paying the rent and the bills, and all the other costs of living. "Do you have any money?” She asked me, and to which I answered in the affirmative, with a hint of embarrassment at the unexpected question. Of course, I thanked her very mush for her concern, while at the same feeling my face was beginning to heat up. I hoped that she did not notice my face reddening. "Are you sure?" She said, looking me right in the eyes.

Clearly, Kumiko was one of the most persistent of strangers whom I had ever met. Once again I answered that all was well as could be, whilst not quite knowing how to react to such unexpected interest in myself or in my financial matters. In short, she struck me as one of those really caring from the heart kind of people, or the type of person that could wait a whole lifetime to meet. I wondered if our path would ever cross again, as this was our second little encounter in as many days. But somehow I knew that this was the final one, and goodbye really meant goodbye more often than not anyway.

I was worried about the long tunnel just up ahead, for I was in no mood to face another one just now. But there it was! God forbid, the Kawashin Tunnel was no less than 2,106 meters long, or more than two kilometers of concrete boredom. The tunnel took exactly three years to construct, from February 2000 to February 2003. It was preceded by the tiny Kawashira Bridge, opened in February of 2003 (Heisei 15) in the year of the Sheep. The endless gauntlet of long tunnels was really getting me down that I was beginning to feel like a sheep, like kind of wanting to just give up and go home.

If one massive tunnel was not enough, the jaws of Make Tunnel now awaited me, and then there would be others to deal with after that. This was how it was, get through them and shut up! Each time I emerged from one tunnel and into the tiny heavens that lay between them, the beauty made the effort worthwhile, if only for a moment. Often it was far from easy to describe vividly the magnificent-cum awe-inspiring scenery that lay before me. This as also one of the reasons why I mostly hated even the sight of the monster tunnels as the stole much of this beauty form me. Then just as the beautiful scenery had been taken in, soon the next tunnel would appear.

The sun always felt hotter in the area between the tunnels. Perhaps because of the increasing heat beating down on my shoulders did the cool of the waiting Kinaushi Tunnel appeared. It was as if its 1,008 meters of cool dark air was calling me into it. “Come on my friend, I am here to serve you.” As for those monster tunnels, I found myself loathing them even less. If it was not for the continuous rain, it was from the heat that I sought shelter in them for a short while. Most of the tunnels that I had to deal with went from around 1,000 meters in length to more than 2,500 meters (Omori Tunnel). In many cases by the mouth of the monster tunnels a long pipe ran the length of the roof, and where birds made their nests.

The short tunnels, or how I felt tunnels should look, were often few and far between. Just how many of these quaint little jobs I passed on the roads, the kind that blended in nicely with the surroundings, I had no idea. With all of this building going on, it was easy to imagine the days of these little tunnels were numbered. I had given up counting the massive tunnels, too, that appeared before me again and again. And which bored like a cancerous artery deep inside the earth's belly. Even the somewhat more recently opened tunnels of moderate length, like, no more than 750 meters long, were far from quaint to the eye. This was all part of progress and development of course. In other words, it was the kind of progress and development that abandoned one quaint little tunnel after another in favor of a collection of massive jobs. It was also the kind of progress and development that cheated tourists at large (and trampers like myself), from much of what attracted people to this northern most island in the first place: the wildlife, the scenic beauty, and so much more to be enjoyed.

Trying to view the massive tunnels, and bridges, from a nonpartisan standpoint was not easy to do for this Luddite of the roads, as I proudly considered myself. Therefore, I was no proponent of anything massive, and the existence or need for such god all mighty structures did not sit well with me. Not that it mattered much in any shape or form to anybody. Then again, I knew that there were those in the know, like, the designers, contractors, builders, and the construction industry at large that would hail the completion of them as lifetime achievements, real feathers in their caps. Even for the notable dons, like, the prefectural government officers and ministers of state who gave the go ahead to begin construction, not to mention those who oversaw compilation of the monster tunnels and bridges, and whose names were there to be seen on the metal plates by the mouths of most, if not all, all came to open them, proudly attended the openings of these eyesores with much pomp and ceremony.

Certainly, the money, the length, the depth and the effort that went into them warranted some ceremony of deep reference to these dark, necessary evils of our times. In broad terms, progress was the true symbol of Japan, in a social climate that saw little or no storms of controversy. As far as I could make out, the only thing that could be felt were winds that swirled about the mouths of these massive jobs. And the only things about them that interested me were the hundreds of dead moths and butterflies that lay by the sides of the mouths as I entered. In fact if it had not been for the hundreds of years between us, I would have sworn that the great poet Matsuo Basho had been looking over my shoulder. "There was such a pile of dead bees, butterflies, and other insects, that the real color of the ground was hardly discernible." (Matsuo Basho/Translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa).

Japan did not need to prove anything to the West anymore like it once felt it had to in the yesteryears of the Meiji Restoration. Then Ito Hirobumi, and other influential oligarchs who rubbed shoulders with one another in those days, drafted the country's constitution that leant towards "Civilization and Enlightenment". Even with the bursting of the Economic Bubble many years later, the leaders of Japan continued to travel along the gray and cloudy roads of progress in the belief that they had the popular support of the people behind them.

In the last decade in my own country, Ireland, progress and development had proceeded at a faster pace than anything Japan had ever experienced in recent history. Such was the country's economic growth that Ireland was even referred to as the 'European Tiger'; or at least for a while, until the bubble burst wide open in 2010 with dismal consequences affecting all walks of life, especially in the building industry. This brought the European tiger pretty much to its knees, if not 'skinned' for want of a better word. The demise of the Irish economy saw the guts and brains of the country, and the disgruntled unhappy youth, spilling out to other countries far and wide in search of work and a better future.

Pressure from the main European powers, such as Germany and England, to borrow huge sums of money to improve the country's economic conditions, had really sent out a resounding warning to other weak European countries, like Greece and Spain, all united under one currency, the Euro. Some political leaders in Europe voiced a stinging criticism at the Irish government for dragging its feet. As far as the European Union was concerned, there was only one topic open to debate, if at all that. A decision had to be taken to pump billions of Euros into the Irish economy to confront, not just Ireland's contemporary needs, but the European Communities economic worries concerning other member countries, too. It was like the fears of the mad cow disease all over again, how to stop its spread?

Astoundingly, some intellectuals had voiced the opinion that the Republic of Ireland had kissed decades of its hard fought for freedoms and popular rights away almost overnight. Like Japan, Ireland was clearly in a pickle. With this new Irish problem unfolding before the eyes of the world, it was felt that other more stringent austerity measures in the shape of 'big cuts' and 'higher taxes' were required. I felt as if security, freedom, justice, andhappiness had to be placed on the shelf for the time being. This was done in the name of 'survival', of course, as the different political oligarchs in Europe termed it. In turn, tens of thousands of Irish people demonstrated against the injustices placed on them, whilst the big knob bankers and business leaders who many argued caused the problems in the first place, and now appeared to be getting off scot-free. In the climate of no clear leadership or ideas, the European tiger went all the way from development, progress and economic growth to a nation in crisis almost over night.

Perhaps I should step down from my green, white, and orange soapbox for a while and return to this thing called 'progress', in Hokkaido. Forgotten for so many years, Hokkaido was the most recent of the main Japanese islands to be developed. Excluding the Seikan Tunnel, which was opened in March of 1988 to link Hokkaido and Honshu, a traveler on the roads like myself had to question the need for those massive and costly tunnels and bridges, all in the name of progress and development. Could not have the taxpayers’ money have been spent better spent? Like I said earlier, tramping through these ungodly lengthy tunnels had only served to hide so much of the scenic landscape from the naked eye.

As to the people I met along the way, the less friendly they appeared to become the further south I tramped. A good number of them failed to acknowledge my presence whenever I said good morning or hello to them in Japanese. Or even with a little nod or wave in their direction as I passed by. One minshuku or Japanese inn I stopped by at to enquire if they could served food to outsiders like me, and if not, to ask if there was a restaurant or shop close at hand where I might be able to pick something up at. The stern faces and waves of the hands told me that they were quite uninterested in helping me. "No water!" came the blunt reply from someone, as I lifted one of my water bottles to indicate that it was low.

Japan was a very conservative country if ever there was one, and it had its share of a few hard-boiled eggs (extreme right wingers) like anywhere else in the world. You never really quite knew if they were being racist to you or not, like you would in the West. In the West you knew it when you met a racist, for they would tell you right to your face for fuck off with a few less appropriate words added for good measure. “Why don't you fuck off back from where you came from?”

After leaving the shade of the minshuku entrance where the cool air from an air-conditioner could be felt, it was back out in the heat from the sun that beat down on me with a vengeance as if trying to tell me something. “So you tried to escape me did you?” I could also feel the presence of unfriendly eyes follow me up onto the road, but I did not care. “Let them look!” After all, I felt free. “Mmm!” Hungry and thirsty, too! My water supply was now just about nonexistent, which not took up most of my thoughts.

Fortunately for me, I soon came upon a freshwater waterfall with one long thin metal pipe sticking out from the side of the rocks. Below the old rusty pipe, a plastic bucket overflowing with the cool icy water set invitingly on the ground. “There must be a god hiding somewhere. A god of water, no doubt.” A weather beaten sign hung beside the bucket, but what it meant I had not the foggiest idea. I knew that the Japanese farmers used pesticides on their fields, but a did not recall passing any farms or rice fields recently. “Fuck it! It looked alright!” I told myself as I knelt down to scope up some of the liquid gold into my mouth. “Mmm! Nice!” Perhaps the sign said something, like, the water was clean and drinkable, and to please keep it that way. After quenching my thirst, and cooling my face and head at the waterfall, my bottles were soon filled. It was not the first waterfall that I passed, but it was the first that I could get at to drink from.

On the road once more I asked an elderly chap if there was some place nearby where I could get food. At first he looked at me like I had just jumped out from a bush, which told me that he did not notice my approach. Perhaps a foreigner was the last person he expected to encounter. Collecting his composure, he squatted down by the side of a tiny stream, and dipping his right hand into the water to wet it, began to draw a map in the hardened sand. "How far away was it?" seemed as good enough question as any to ask him. "About two hundred and fifty meters" he answered me in Japanese. I thanked the man from my hungry heart, and set off making my way in the direction he had just given me.

The town was called Kamoenai, and the little roadside restaurant on the edge of the town that I stopped at went by the name of 'Maruman'. It did not take me very long to devour the pork cutlet on top of a bowl of rice (katsudon) I ordered, not to mention empty two jugs of cool Asahi beer into my belly. “Mmm! Oshii desu!” (Delicious!) I said, to the waitress, with a smile in her direction. The waitress turned out to be the proprietress of the establishment. "Were you camping?" she asked me, and then went on to tell me that I had just passed by a campsite, which I had failed to notice. Most of the campsites I passed along my way were so empty, or hidden by trees anyway, or off the road and unmarked, that you had to keep your eyes wide open for little signs of some sore to find them. Also, most of the campsites were not mentioned in any of my maps.

As it was, on one of my maps the campsite was called, 'Kamoenai Youth Travel Village', and a rough guess told me that it was at least one kilometer back up the road from where I had come a little earlier, if at that. Pride was not part of my baggage, especially on the roads and elements all day long, non-stop, day in and day out. Besides, retracing my steps only to make camp seemed to me to be a bit on the defeated side of things.

It was true that I would have been more comfortable at the campsite with a warm shower, and to wash some clothes and get them dry by tomorrow. Even just rest for the sake of resting before hitting the road again in the morning all seemed tempting. Either way, I decided to push on, for a glance at the old bicycle clock I carried in one of my pockets told me that there was still a good few hours of daylight. “Just gone three! Fuck it! It was too early to even think about calling it a day,” I mumbled to myself, when the lady disappeared to take an order from another customer. On top of that, Kamoenai was a lifeless little place, without even a Seicomart convenience store in which I might be able to pick up an inexpensive bottle of red wine to help ease my tired mind with in the evening when I did make camp. It was gone three-thirty when I finally left Maruman, both body and mind well replenished.

One picturesque little tunnel I came to, its name I failed to jot down, ran for just 218 meters. Away to the right as I emerged from this tunnel my eyes fell upon two massive constructions all in the name of economic progress and development, no doubt. "For fuck sake! Was there no end to such ugly crap?" I swore to myself. It was like someone had run his or her ink-stained fingers over a beautiful canvas painting. With the construction going on all around the area it was easy to surmise that if ever I came this way again in the not too distant future, the little tunnel would be gone or abandoned. Opened in 1971, which was old by Japanese standards, already its days were numbered.

What I could see now were two giant concrete legs, which reminded me of the time when the Tonari-Nippori Monorail in Tokyo was being constructed. Propping my backpack against a railing of a bridge, I made my way down the steep embankment where part of the old Route 229 lay. Soon I stood next to the old blocked up tunnel that I had seen from up above. There was nothing special about the old tunnel and road, other than to say that I had bicycled this way some two and a half decades earlier, and as Alan Booth had done on foot on his top to bottom venture through much of the country. It was very true; parting could be such sweet sorrow, to paraphrase one great advocate of the stage many years earlier.

It was only a matter of time before I would run into another massive job bored into the side of the earth or scaring the beautiful landscape. A bit further along and across a couple of bridges, I came to the new Moiwa Tunnel. Completed in March of 2000, it ran for 1,042 meters, and stood mockingly near to its dead predecessor. The Kamitomarioobashi Bridge, which led to the tunnel, was opened in November in the year of Heisei 12 (2000), the year of the Dragon. Off to the right set my old friend, the Nihon Kei. Not far from the white rolling tide, I could see the sad faded shape of the old tunnel and road. When a tunnel or bridge was decommissioned, so to speak, the names too were usually removed. In this case, however, I could still see the gray nameplate above the mouth of the old abandoned tunnel. The name was too far from where I stood to make out, but there it was, like a sunken ship, still holding onto some sense of dignity.

My rather slow emergence from this long grave of sorts presented me with the sweetest sugar cube and delicious of biscuits that I had tasted all day long. Apart from the scenery, which was breathtaking, the giant rock in its entire splendor set there under the sky. Its shape made me momentarily stop to think of the Sphinx at Gaza, and where countless tourists flocked to Egypt to see and to take their photographs standing next to it. But here I had all to myself, and not a tourist in sight.

On closer observation, the great rock resembled the shape of a rabbit. Now I found myself thinking about a white rabbit I once had for a pet in Tokyo donkey’s years ago. At the end of its life it climbed up onto my chest as I lay on the sofa watching television, and looked square into my eyes. Then with one deep last breath, its ears drooping downwards, its little body in a Sphinx-like position, my rabbit went to sleep forever. The rock, too, like a giant gray rabbit crouched on its belly, ears pointing down to the white foamy tide below. Its eyes could be seen to gaze out over the vast sea beyond the coastline. How oblivious it appeared to the noise of the world speeding past along new Route 299, whilst below, the abandoned old route closed and forgotten lay silent and alone.

 


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