Discover the Hidden Gems of Oita, Kyushu

Famed for its geothermal activity, cultural festivals, and stunning landscapes, Oita Prefecture is a vast and beautiful region. Each component district is home to a variety of towns with unique histories and wonderful local people eager to share their unique culture and history with visitors. A short trip from central Fukuoka, this region is a wonderful place for a weekend getaway or short mid-week trip, but knowing which sites to cover can be a tricky task when faced with the overwhelming list of important and stunning tourist attractions offered here. So to begin to tackle these sights, Fukuoka Now took a three day journey to tick off some of the must-sees. We hope the following guide outlining our adventures will be an informative and interesting introduction to some of the main sights. We had a great time and look forward to returning, so hope you are equally inspired to go and explore Oita!

Getting there
‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Shinkansen’. Oita prefecture is very accessible from Fukuoka, making it the perfect destination for a getaway. Just an hour and a half from Hakata Station by JR and Shinkansen, or two hours by JR rail only, a one way JR fare to Oita City costs ¥5,570. Not only is traveling by train a great opportunity to enjoy the breath-taking landscape of Northern Kyushu, the option to ride the Shinkansen for the first leg of the journey to Kokura is a great way to tick this world famous train off the bucket list.

Ao No Domon and Rakanji
Having jumped off the train half an hour before it reached Oita City, our first stop of some of the region’s highlights was Ao No Domon cave in Yakabei gorge near Nakatsu City. Dug by hand in the Edo period, the 342m long tunnel was conceived by a monk by the name of Zenkai in response to the hundred or so deaths of local residents traversing a steep cliff road to Rakanji temple. With a captivating story of compassion and hard graft over thirty years, buoyed by the popular retelling by Kikuchi Kan, this site is a perfect spot for reflection and awe at the power of one man’s vision. The surrounding hills are also popular for walking, particularly in the stunning autumn colors and fresh greens and blossom of spring.

Hours: Always open
Fee: N/A
Tel: 0979-52-2211
Address: Ao no domon, Nakatsu, Oita Prefecture, 871-0202
Website

A short drive south takes visitors to a small temple containing the tools used by Zenkai to drive through the dense rock, and from here Rakanji temple can also be reached on foot or by chair lift. Set into the side of Mt. Rakan, the 1969-installed chairlift costs ¥700 each way but provides easy access and a fun carnival feel to this beautiful landscape.

On ascension, the area around the temple itself becomes a no-photography zone in an effort to encourage oneness with nature and to respect this sacred space. Indeed, there is an incredible atmosphere on the cloud-shrouded mountainside as you traverse the rock face enclosed by forest and the 650 year old temple rises majestically out of the mist.

Another attraction of the site besides its natural beauty is the tradition of leaving a rice spoon at one of the many satellite sites in a cry for supernatural aid. The relative similarity of the Japanese cry for help tasukete to supoon has catalysed this movement, and all requests are welcome. Up on the tree line, this is site is also a wonderful spot to appreciate seasonal changes, and visiting in time to experience the autumn colors is highly recommended.

Hours: 9.00~17.00 every day
Fee: ¥300 entry to main hall and gardens, ¥700 one way chairlift
Tel: 0979-52-2538
Address: 1560 Gayama Gorge Town, Nakatsu-shi, Oita Prefecture
Website

Within the Yakabei valley there also lies the Maple Yaba cycling road, which has been constructed relatively recently to offer a scenic 35 km route right alongside the Yamakuni River. Two cycle terminals lie at intervals along the route and provide cycle hire, with the Yakabei terminal also offering accommodation. For just ¥370, bicycles can be hired for 3 hours, with an ¥108 payment for an extra hour, or for ¥800 if you would prefer to drop the bike at another terminal along the road.

Hours: Closed Tues.
Fee: ¥370 (3 hours, with return to same station), ¥108 (hour extension), ¥800 (drop off at another station)
Tel: 0979-54-2700
Address: Yamakuni – Nakatsu, Nakatsu City, Oita Prefecture
Website

Gin Sushi
This Hita/Nakatsu area is also notable for its strong cuisine tradition, and there is a particular sushi specialty in this area that is well worth a taste test. Japan can be a difficult place for vegetarians, but several restaurants in this region have for a long time made zasushi rolls, which do not contain any meat or fish products. A whole cuisine of vegetarian sushi has now developed out of this local diet staple and a set of beautifully presented and filling sushi pieces is available from at least four restaurants in the region. Gin Sushi is one such establishment, with lunch and dinner sets available for a reasonable price depending on the size.

Hours: 11.00~21.00 every day
Fee: ¥1,500~¥2,160 depending on the set size
Tel: 0973-22-3333
Address: Sanbon-matsu 1-12-40, Hita City, Oita Prefecture
Website

Hita Gion Yamaboko Hall
People from this region are particularly proud of their heritage as this land historically belonged to the early Shoguns from the Tokugawa clan. Thus a sense of special pride and festivities developed because no intermediary daimyo or governors were placed over this highly revered area. This Hita heritage thus facilitated the creation of the annual Gion festival 400 years ago in which the various districts of Hita City competed to illustrate their prosperity through luxuriously decorated floats. Leading them in an ordered procession through the streets in the first weekend after July 20th, these floats are pulled by young men from around the country, often with some connection to this region. The floats weigh approximately four tons each, are covered in life-size models depicting famous legends and histories, and are judged against each other as illustrations of their represented district’s wealth. For the rest of the year after the festival, some of these floats are on display at the Gion Festival Museum in Hita.

Currently housing six of these bright, bold creations, as well as festival-related paraphernalia illustrating its history, the museum costs ¥310 and is open every day except Wednesday from 9am to 5pm. Now a UNESCO Cultural Heritage event, this festival is definitely worth the experience in July, but, if you’re unable to attend, the floats are a sight available to behold at the museum.

Hours: 9.00~17.00, closed Wed.
Fee: ¥310
Tel: 0973-24-6453
Address: 2-7-10 Kuma, Hita City, Oita Prefecture
Website

Onda village
Moving away from Hita’s historical district of Mameda into the countryside, a small gem of a village called Onda contains further treasures to appreciate. This hillside community of artisan families is the home of the famous Onda yaki no sato pottery, noted for its superb quality and creation using exclusively traditional methods. Techniques like chiselled patterns called tobikana have been passed down for around 400 years from Korean potters who settled here historically, and still survive today in the wonderful, earthy pieces. There is a small museum at the top of the settlement exhibiting some special pieces and containing educational materials on the production of the pottery, providing a good foundation from which to appreciate the rest of the village. You can then take a fascinating stroll down the main street through the houses, passing river-powered clay-pulverising hammers (karausa), long kiln huts, and stalls by the various artists’ houses.

With pieces ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand yen, these stands are the perfect place to pick up a unique souvenir of this very special cultural site. Onda really is a truly striking location, epitomised in its humble production methods and functional, unique pottery produce; this is a must-see for art enthusiasts.

Hours: Always open
Fee: N/A
Tel: 0973-29-2449
Address: Motoemachi, Sarayama, Hita City, Oita Prefecture
Website

Taio Gold Mine
An hour or so drive west from Onda brought us to the old Taio Gold Mine near the Kumamoto border. Covering 17 levels of tunnels extending into the mountainside, all the seams of gold and other metals here have been fully exhausted since first tapped by the Englishman Hans Hunter in 1898, and the last mining operations here ended in the 1970s. Part of the top level of tunnels is now available for the public to explore and contains an interesting mix of modern and historic machinery and mining technique models.

The former abundance of gold here also bore a legend of golden sea bream originating near the mine, so the 800m walking track also contains a small shrine to these lucky fish. The entry fee of ¥1,030 also includes admission to an interesting gallery of bronze sculptures and a small museum about the Cameroon national football team. Placed in Nakatsu for their 2002 World Cup training camp, the team were welcomed warmly by villagers and received a national following, with local people still supporting this African nation in football tournaments.

There is also an extensive selection of gold themed omiyage available to buy in the gift shop, including delicious lemon-gold leaf tea, gold cookies and sake!

Hours: 9.00~17.00, closed New Year’s Day and first weekday of Feb.
Fee: ¥1,030
Tel: 0973-56-5316
Address: 3750 Nakatsuemura Gose, Hita city, Oita Prefecture
Website

Nagayu Onsen – Kawasemi no sho
Moving east again, the area surrounding Aso Kujyu National Park is famed for its onsen, and a stay at one of the luxury hotel and onsen facilities near Nagayu is a wonderful way to experience the mineral waters of the region. Kawasemi no sho is set in serene forest over the hill from the national park and has ten suites of rooms, many with private bath facilities.

We were fortunate to stay in some of the most luxury suites, with two bathrooms, a dining and a tea ceremony room, indoor and outdoor baths, and a double bedroom each.

Not only are the rooms beautifully decorated and comfortable, the food on offer at the hotel restaurant is exquisite. Dinner was a beautiful affair comprising 16 courses including beautifully tender enoha fish, also known as ‘gems of the mountain river’, and breakfast was equally delicious.

The onsen facilities outside the various suites are also exquisite, with a private onsen and separate men’s and women’s baths available to all guests 24 hours a day. Walking through the trees in a yukata in the early morning light to soak in the hot, cloudy mineral waters is a once in a lifetime experience. Room rates are ¥32,000 per night per guest at the highest level, but the incredible comfort and quality of this hotel makes the price well-justified. Day visits to the onsen of three, six or nine hours, and lunch meals, are also available.

Hours: Reception open 8.00~22.00
Fee: Rooms start from ¥15,120 per night per guest
Tel: 0974-75-2300
Address: Nagayu Onsen, Taketa, Oita Prefecture, 878-0402
Website

Asokujyu National Park
A short drive around the ridge from Nagayu onsen takes you to the heart of the Asokujyu national park, a region covering almost 750 km2 noted for its beautiful peaks and sweeping pastureland.

The park is very popular with walkers, and offers fantastic treks from March to October including the stunning pink haze of the azaleas in May and early June. There is also a fantastic view on clear days across the Hando-Kujyu plains to the five peaks of Mt. Aso, which appear to form a giant Buddha sleeping on its back. A series of good intermediate and advanced hikes around Mt. Mimatayama can be commenced from the car park by the Chojabaru visitor center over the Makinoto Pass. This facility is open from 9am to 5pm from May to October and 9am to 4pm the remainder of the year, and contains some excellent information for hiking and education about the wildlife and plants in the area. March is a particularly interesting time to visit, as local residents set light to the grasslands around the mountains to contain forest growth and maintain the ground for livestock grazing.

The visitor center contains a very informative and interesting ten minute film about this process and is available with English, Korean and Mandarin subtitles. From here several pleasant, short beginner walks are available on the boardwalks over neighboring Tadewara Marsh, where visitors can enjoy the spring sunshine and the stunning snow-capped hills whilst looking out for growth in the charred fields. As the park also encompasses many popular driving and cycling routes, there are various restaurants, toilets and omiyage facilities available throughout the area. It is worth noting, however, that this route is not easily traversable without snow chains between November and March. Buses also run to the Chojabaru visitor center from the Kokonoe interchange and JR Kyudai line on a regular basis, and local buses connect the Makinoto Pass to the Kujyu trailhead and Chojabaru visitor center every ten minutes from March to November. This area is well-credited as one of the best walking locations in Japan due to its natural beauty and the lower population of the region, and we can attest to its stunning landscape; it’s definitely worth a visit!

Hours: 9.00~17.00 May~Oct., 9.00~16.00 Nov.-Apr., closed Dec. 29th~Jan. 3rd
Fee: N/A
Tel: 0973-79-2154
Address: Tano, Kokonoe, Kusa, Oita Prefecture
Website

Kokonoe Suspension Bridge
This region also has a great attraction for those with an engineering interest, as a 30 minute drive takes visitors to the incredible Kokonoe Suspension Bridge. Innovative local government officers proposed this construction over a decade ago to bolster regional tourism numbers, and its success has been phenomenal with almost a million visitors every year.

Formerly the longest suspension bridge in Japan, it is still the highest in the country, standing above the valley floor at 173m and 777m above sea level. The cost of crossing this remarkable foot bridge is ¥500 and is most popular in October as people flock to see the stunning autumnal display of colors. Whilst the height may put some visitors off, those unsure of its structural stability need not fear; the bridge has a huge maximum capacity of 800 people and has been built to withstand an earthquake of up to a seven level strength. If, however, you are still not keen to cross, there is a viewing platform to the east of the bridge entrance with a fantastic view across to this engineering marvel. A completely unimpeded view is available for just ¥100 entry to the second level of this viewing area which also neighbors a small shrine.

Hours: 8.30~18.00 Jul. to Oct., 8.30~17.00 Nov. to Jun.
Fee: ¥500
Tel: 0973-73-3800
Address: 1208 Tano, Oaza, Kokonoemachi, Kusu, Oita Prefecture
Website

Bebenko
With the area’s long history of livestock grazing, it’s no surprise that some excellent beef restaurants have sprung up across the plains. Bebenko, meaning ‘baby cow’ in the local dialect, is a particularly popular lunch spot with beautiful views from their terrace across the national park. The restaurant is owned by a farmer whose own rice, vegetables, and beef are on the menu. Dishes start from around ¥710 yen up to the excellent ¥3,980 steak set, which is complimented with rice, salad, miso soup, and tsukemono.

The Japanese saying ‘betsu barra’, or ‘separate stomach [for dessert]’ is very useful here, as the beautifully tender beef can be chased down with homemade soft serve ice cream. A cone costs just ¥380 and vanilla and blueberry flavors, the latter made from local blueberries, are available and bursting with fresh fruity taste.

Hours: 11.00~22.00
Fee: Dishes from ¥710 to ¥3,980
Tel: 0973-79-3110
Address: Nami, Kokonoemachi, Osamu, Oita Prefecture 879-4800
Website

Fuko-ji Temple
The neighboring region of Bungo-Ono city is also well worth a visit for its interesting history and natural beauty. One particularly notable site is Fuko-ji Temple by the Ono River, which is famous for its large Buddha carved into the cliff side by the local daimyo around 800 years ago. This lord, Sabura Ogata, completed the Buddha as an emblem for the protection of his community, and also carved out two caves full of smaller jira disciple figures.

Locals feel his quest was successful, as the area has enjoyed peace for most of its history since, and suffered very minimal damage in more recent natural disasters in Kyushu. A small temple on the site is open for visitors, and is also accompanied by a nade botoke, or ‘rubbing Buddha’ figure, whose head and legs are well polished by people rubbing the areas of the body which they wish to heal or improve.

Access to the site is downhill via a paved road or a short forest trail and toilets and parking are available.

Hours: N/A
Fee: N/A
Tel: 0974-35-3601
Address: 1225 Asajimachi, Kamiotsuka, Bungo-Ono, Oita Prefecture
Website

Takakiya Sake Brewery
The purity of the Bungo-Ono area’s water running down from the surrounding mountains has created excellent quality rice yields, ultimately allowing the production of quality sake in this region. One notable business is the Takakiya Brewery, which has been family operated here for over 130 years.

Now owned and run by the 5th generation, they use their own rice variety, Wakamizu, to produce sake of the highest quality. Although international appetite for sake has increased in recent times, the brewery is committed to serving the Japanese market at the present time and so is making efforts to engage customers at sake conferences such as those held in Tokyo and Fukuoka. The shop contains a small café area as well as a fully stocked store with a range of sake starting from around ¥1,000 a bottle, and also sells osake kasu, a bi-product useful in cooking, and amazake.

Hours: 10.00~16.00, closed on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day
Fee: Bottles sold starting at around ¥1,000
Tel: 0974-42-2216
Address: 381 Shimotsuji, Ogatamachi, Bungo-Ono, Oita Prefecture
Website

Rigaku no sato Museum
A short drive from Takakiya is a beautiful building covered in white lattice work. A former sake brewery which narrowly escaped demolition, the building is now a museum for an important collection of over a hundred clay figures made by the late local resident, Kimu Gotto.

She began a project, the fruits of which are these handmade models, in her mid-70s to educate others on the traditional Japanese lifestyle she enjoyed as a child. These delightful figures were created over ten years to depict various scenes of farming, schooling, motherhood, and local festivities, and can be viewed for just ¥330.

The museum also includes some well-presented theater and annual sakura festival costumes, as well as a striking portable Buddhist shrine. A theater and concert space on the first floor is the site of regular performances, and the nearby Veggie café and pottery workshop offer visitors a wonderful chance to enjoy local produce and get creative at a regular classes.

Hours: 9.00~17.00, closed Tues.
Fee: ¥330 museum entry
Tel: 0974-42-4822
Address: 388-1 Baba, Ogatamachi, Bungo-Ono, Oita Prefecture
Website

Harajiki no taki Falls
Visitors to the Bungo-Ono area also have a fantastic opportunity to visit what some call ‘the Niagara Falls of Kyushu’ at Harajiki. Here water running down from Mt. Sobo flows forcefully over the 120m wide edge of the rock face and crashes down to continue on its course 20m below.

A truly spectacular natural phenomenon, and a welcome cool down on hot summer days, the river also plays an important part in the local tradition. The annual autumn festival sees half-naked local men carry a float from the ‘mother shrine’ on the west hillside through the freezing waters under a tori gate at the top of the falls.

They then reunite the ‘family’ upon delivering the float to the ‘father’ and ‘child’ shrines at Ninomiya Hachiman Shinto Shrine on the opposite hill face. Braced against the cold by sake shots, the spectacle can be observed from the footbridge opposite the falls constructed in 1992 or from the terrace of the service station about 100m away.

Hours: N/A
Fee: N/A
Tel: N/A
Address: 817 Ogatamachi, Bungo-Ono, Oita Prefecture
Website

Takeda City
Twenty minutes to the west is Taketa City, also known as Lotus Root City for its proliferation of tunnels connecting the surrounding farmland to the ancient castle town. Unlike many other Japanese historic towns that have removed old style architecture in favour of 20th century block building, most of the wooden samurai era structures still stand here. The city hall, with its striking castle-like form, is particularly enjoyable to observe from the road, and visitors can also walk around the ruins of the local mountain-top castle, Okajyo, made famous by the melancholic ballad about this fortress in the moonlight. This town’s samurai history is also annually celebrated by a parade of historic reenactors in military regalia marching through the sakura-lined streets. Local Christian communities of the Tokugawa period are represented across the city and surrounding hills by their worship sites hidden within Inari shrines. Look out for crosses marked on the tori gates or nearby rocks and steps left there by these persecuted groups. Visitors looking for an authentic Japanese onsen experience can also join locals here at Hanamizuki Onsen located next to the river in the center of town. At ¥500 entry, the complex combines naturally heated and boiler tempered water with various jets, a cold plunge pool, and a sauna, and is a great chance to mingle with chatty locals. For an even more extensive experience of Japanese country town life, homestay accommodation is available through the Oita Prefecture Tourism Association website. We were fortunate enough to stay at Unchuzaka house with Hadano san and his wife, a retired railroad engineer and shiitake mushroom farmer. A wonderful couple, they drove us up the valley to their family farm to pick shiitake mushrooms and freshly sprung fukinoto buds which we then ate for dinner as tempura delights.

Sitting cross legged in their tatami dining room, we spent a delightful evening eating wonderful home cooked Japanese food and listening to tales of the cunning gang of wild boar who reside in the nearby forest, plotting their latest attack on the mushroom crop.

Similarly refreshing experiences of Japanese country life are available through the Oita and Taketa tourism offices for around ¥4,000 a night including dinner and breakfast.

Homestays: Website

Hodojima island
The coast of Oita prefecture is another wonderful area to explore and experience another side of Japanese culture outside of the big cities. Several of the islands are very accessible to visit, and we decided to take a quick trip to one of the smaller ones, Hodojima, to see what this fishing community was like. Six passenger ferries run each day from Tsukumi port, costing ¥860 one way for the 25 minute trip to the little island with a four kilometre circumference.

The place has the feel of a small fishing village in South coast of England, but with more modern architecture, as you step off the ferry and head into a labyrinth of alleys up the hill. There are 800 registered residents here and in reality only 500 permanent inhabitants, but the population is bolstered in the summer by tourists walking or cycling around the scenic island overlooking the Pacific. The great attraction of this place, however, is the exquisite cuisine born of the Hodojima’s long fishing history. Although in decline in recent years, men from Hodojima have fished for tuna around the Japanese coast for hundreds of years and would often be away from home for up to a year. Feeding themselves from the catch and reluctant to waste anything, the fishermen consumed all parts of the tuna including its head and internal organs. This rich food is served up by local families such as the Okawas, owners of Hodojima Okawa restaurant and former fishermen themselves, for lunch and dinner every day. From a beautiful tatami-matted room overlooking the harbour, patrons can enjoy their absolutely delicious maguro, sesame and miso donburi. This is the cheapest item on their menu, but a full set of helm fin soup, fish head miso, yaki heart, and beautiful fatty sashimi are available with a reservation the day before for ¥3,500.

A wonderfully kind and interesting couple, the passion of Okawa Yoshinobu and his wife for their local history was delightful, and the interconnected culture of the fishing islands around Kyushu was fascinating to hear about. Such an opportunity to eat cuisine most Japanese haven’t tasted, experience this important Japanese subculture, and meet such kind local people is a chance not to be missed on Hodojima!

Hours: 11.00~14.00, 18.00~21.00 every day
Fee: Tuna set ¥3,500
Tel: 0972-87-2024
Address: 1120 Hodojima, Tsukumi, Oita Prefecture
Website

Kojiya Honten
More wonderfully kind and passionate local business owners can be found in the village of Saiki 50 minutes to the south of Hodojima.

One such individual is Asari Myoho, a descendant of the koji cultivators who opened Kojiya Honten store over 300 years ago. Their bacteria-based product is something of a wonder-food; a salty seasoning which reacts with glucose and lipids to further develop flavor in various foods and benefit the gut. The business had been in a steady decline until nine years ago when Asari began to broadcast the health benefits of koji and published cook books and lead classes on site incorporating the product. With an infectiously bubbly personality, she has spoken enthusiastically around the world about the value of koji in its various forms.

In the original store here in Saiki they stock miso, pepper mixes, and sake products containing this seasoning, and their wares are now also available in food halls throughout Kyushu. Koji’s most popular use is in home cooking in its basic powder form, and bags of basic koji are sold from ¥850 for 500g or ¥1,500 for 1kg. Very tasty and beneficial to general health, the conviction of this wonderful business woman has saved koji and this family business, which is definitely worth a visit from anyone passing through the region.

Hours: 9.00~17.00 Sun.~Fri., 10.00~13.00 Sat.
Fee: Cooking classes from ¥1,500, koji seasoning from ¥850 for 500g
Tel: 0120-166-355
Address: 14-29 Sendomachi, Saiki, Oita Prefecture
Website

Haccho Oji shopping street
In central Usuki, the historic shopping area of Haccho Oji contains more old family businesses perfect for exploring and buying quality local produce. Kanishyoyu, a family run soy sauce producer, has been in operation since 1600, making it the oldest soy and miso shop in Kyushu. The strong smell greets you upon entering the store and visitors can look through the window at the manufacturing process and purchase a bottle of the popular seasoning sauce for as little as ¥500.

Another family-run business further down the road is the kimono tailors, Kimono no Akouya, who have been creating textile masterpieces for 363 years and are now operated by the 16th generation.

Kimonos are available to hire for a full day for just ¥4,000 including all the associated accessories, providing a wonderful chance to wander the historic streets of samurai housing and nearby ruins of Usuki castle in style.

Reservation at least the day before is required.

Kimono no Akouya:
Hours: 9.00~18.00 Mon.~Sat., 10.00~17.00 Sun., closed New Year’s Eve
Fee: ¥4,000 for a day rental
Tel: 0972-62-2324
Address: Haccho Oji, Usuki, Oita Prefecture, 875-0041
Website

Kirakuan
To top off an extensive and highly enjoyable tour of Oita prefecture, our final meal was at Kirakuan, a beautiful fugu restaurant, Kirakuan in Usuki. Located at the base of the ruin-topped hill, guests here are treated to tasty sashimi, hot pot, and karaage cuts of the famously toxic fugu blowfish which is a delicacy of this region.

We were served in a private room by women in a stunning kimono and enjoyed stories of the historic connection of Usuki to the Netherlands harking back to the Tokugawa exclusion of foreigners when local residents harboured shipwrecked Dutchmen. This relationship actually facilitated a recent meeting of the crown princes of Japan and the Netherlands at Kirakuan. With a set menu of five delicious courses and dessert for ¥9,000, the restaurant is one of the top establishments in the area and offers a unique luxury experience of this famous fish.

Hours: 11.00~15.00, 17.00~20.00
Fee: Fugu set menu from ¥11,000 per person
Tel: 0972-63-8855
Address: 2-107-92 Usuki, Oita Prefecture
Website

Text and photos by Fern Brereton for Fukuoka Now (March, 2017)

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