Nakahechi Trail

Kansai: Kii Peninsula, Japan

William Mackesy’s account of this walk

This is how the Nakahechi trail was for our group of 12 middle-agers in June 2015.

Day 1 - Koyasan

This is a slightly funny day’s walking, a steep clamber on the old womens’ route around the perimeter hills of one of Japan’s greatest Buddhist temple complexes, then a meander through its heart.

We begin with a big-hotel buffet breakfast, then potter to the central Osaka station for our train to Koyasan. An interesting rattle through endless Osaka suburbs then the hills and valley towns, then a slow wind up a steep and narrow valley, and we are at Koyasan station.

A quick vending machine moment, and we are off, on the old pilgrimage route, up a long, steep, paved track, then a steep rough path switchbacking up the hillside. A lot of group chatter fails to disguise that we are all feeling the first-day strain. While it is an interesting-enough climb up steep zig-zags, it isn’t especially enjoyable – well, for the jet-laggged Brits, anyway.

We eventually reach a road and a Nyonin-do, a marker and prayer-hall for female use. These temptresses were not allowed into the sacred precincts of Koyasan, so had to make do with a circumambulation of the hills that surround the Koyasan valley. These restrictions, and most of the prayer halls, are long gone, but this one is a charming structure complete with a tatamied tea-room beside the hall and a big bronze statue of the well-loved bodhisattva Jizo, guardian deity of travellers, across the road.

We take off again up the women’s route, gentler walking now up a ridge in thinned plantation pines. At the top is our first pioneer oji, a shrine, usually with orange torii gates and more Shinto than Buddhist in feel, although, with the syncretic nature of Japanese religion, there are usually features of both. This is a fine mountain-top site, (question: when are hills mountains? These are around 1,000m and forested) with views across the forested hills around Koyasan. It is quiet but for the blowing of a deep horn.

We eat a quick lunch in a shelter, as it is grey and surprisingly cold up here, then a long descent, past a couple of torii gates, gets us to the magnificent two-tier pavilion-gate at Daimon, a main entrance to the sacred area. We wander through the town to the Danjo Garan complex at the heart of Koyasan, where the first structures were built after the consecration of the area by the great popularizer of Buddhism and introducer of the Shingon sect from China, Kobo Daishi, in 819AD. A series of superb buildings, prayer halls, stupas and pavilions, over a huge site. Most of them are of age-old wood, with gorgeous curved roofs, quiet and harmonious to the Western eye, with the occasional explosion of vermilion where a building has been reconstructed. In its setting of ancient cedars, it is a deeply pleasing place. On through the town is the 2km long path through the ancient forest-cemetery which leads to the Oku-no-in Inner Temple. The cemetery is crammed with over 200,000 stone monuments of all shapes and sizes, from the shoguns and samurai and other notables of ancient Japan, to the corporate citizens of Sony. It is a curious mixture of melancholy, peaceful and moving, mysterious even, as its side-paths recede into the hillside. At its far end, the graceful old hall of Oku-no-in, the climax of most pilgrimages to Koyasan, protects the simple mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.

A walk back through the graveyard and into town gets us to our temple-guesthouse, a series of traditional buildings in superb gardens created by a famous modern designer: raked gravel, rocks and maples at the front, with other little gardens set among the rambling rooms and passages of the complex.

We are shown to our tatamied rooms, all shared, then take our first bath, a lengthy scrub-down then a soak in a very hot tub with room for 3 at a squeeze (which isn’t desirable). Delightful.

Wrapped in our Yukata evening gowns, we address ourselves to welcome astringent beers overlooking a gorgeous garden at the rear, a pond in the centre with a long, trim bank of azaleas in partial bloom on the slope behind.

We sit down (and I mean down) to our first traditional Japanese dinner, cross-legged in two lines in a large tatamied dining room. It is soon uncomfortable on the hips and knees and we start sitting in all sorts of inappropriate positions with – gasp – our feet exposed to the other diners, a major solecism. But what a meal, a succession of delightful little dishes which leave us full but not bloated.

Some stomach-settling sake overlooking yet another garden, this on with different coloured sands, then it is time for a bleary, jetlaggy bed.

Day 2 – Takijiri-oji to Takahara

The first day of the real trail.

 Every day starts early, and we are up promptly and, after a few minutes admiring the rear garden’s great sculpted folds of azaleas, the clouds of green seasoned with red splashes, we are back in a dining room for a capacious breakfast of multiple delicious dishes, stocking up for the day ahead. Then we are sitting on the front verandah with our boots on, admiring the front gardens: elegant raked gravel, an island of small maples and behind a bamboo fence sculpted banks of varied mosses amid more gravel. Really inspiring, and made for contemplation: they have you wanting to delay your departure for some quiet time.

We walk to the grand Kongobu-ji temple with its long courtyard and harmonious row of pavilions and joining passages. Down a series of passages we find a huge garden of rocks and raked gravel, surrounded by delicate shrubs and maples with pines behind, all around another perfect (sorry, getting repetitive) pavilion. I sit and consider.

We board a minibus to head to the start of our walk on the Nakahechi Trail. We buy lunch-supplements in a bright and tidy Family Mart store with a polite, face-masked assistant. Our road winds along the valleys and ridges of the rugged hills south of Koyasan. Much of it is blanketed in the coniferous (cedar, cypress and pine) plantations we will become used to - attractive but not thrilling.

We lunch at a small museum by the important Takijiri-oji torii gate and shrine, where the pilgrim entered the sacred metaphysical mountain realm. From here we climb steeply and fairly incessantly for a couple of hours or so, mainly in natural forest, to a high rocky top with wide views of the already remoter hills. This is not Himalayan or Dolomitic visual fireworks, but it is quietly lovely.

 It is hot and quite humid, and we are glad to be in the shade of the trees. And to be banking some good weather, as the forecast is for 100mm (4 ins) of rain on Wednesday.

I’m getting the measure of our group. Everyone is friendly and easy, and John McBride our guide later says he has never led such a chatty lot. Fair enough – there is a pretty solid wall of entertaining yack irrespective of the conditions -  except for the dour Brits, Reggie taking his customary walking-hermit place at the back and me often on my own next ahead. A bit of jetlag and the joys of headspace, even if not much is going on in it.

The rest of our shortish walk – less than four hours, I think – winds along the upper hillsides and ridges, passing relics of the years of pilgrimage: statues and, on the slightly scruffy outskirts of Takahara, a little orange Shinto oji sitting in a grove of huge old camphor trees.

On and up through the too-quiet village, we find our lodgings on a hillside with a terrace looking out across a wide, deep valley. Delighted at this beauty and relieved at how easy (well, un-difficult) we found it, the foundations for a 50-year-olds’ lager fest are in place. Some beers later, we broil in the bath, then it is back to the terrace to enjoy the gently fading light. This is a delightful and cleverly constructed place, built by the local government to serve the post-WHS trail and managed by a very sweet couple, who have created a slightly hippyish feel. Another endless series of beautifully cooked dishes later (how such fare is produced night after night in these relative backwaters is testament to the depth of the Japanese culinary tradition), served in the high-ceilinged, multiply beamed hall, and we are back on the terrace for, if I remember, whisky, brandy and beers. And, of course, sake (for heaven’s sake!). Exuberant plans are already starting to be laid for a Scottish walk next year.

Day 3 – Takahara to Tsugizakura

Everyone is surprisingly well (or pretending to be), considering the energetic and so-late (11pm?) evening had. Maybe our late 7am start helps. Slackers.

A varied and delicious array of dishes for breakfast, including little marinaded vegetables, fish and rice. Not quite as filling as previous mornings, though, as I don’t feel like Henry VIII when I leave the table. A leisurely pack, made easy by the fact we are just carrying day packs today – our luggage meets us tonight and most other nights. Time for a gentle viewing of the quiet valley and the pale blue hills receding to a dove-grey sky, then we are climbing up through the slightly forlorn, closed-up houses and fallow rice terraces of the upper village. There is little activity – one old man bending over an irrigation channel. We are soon back in the woods, climbing steadily on good, often needle-soft paths among monoculture plantations enlivened by some mixed undergrowth. We pass the village’s irrigation dam, and reach and wind along a ridge-top, getting the odd glimpse of forested Kii mountains.

A small Shinto shrine sits among the pines with a nearby notice telling us that “In 1109, Fujiwara Munetada, on his pilgrimage to Kumano, stayed near the shrine, in a shed with a drinking fountain. In 1201, Fujiwara Todo also slept in the open near here.”. What a meticulous literary nation, to have left such detailed records, and what a double-edged sword the World Heritage Site status is: fascinating and spirit-moving to have such information, but with a whiff of the theme park in the middle of this forest.

We snack in a clearing showing signs of the foundations of an ancient teahouse. Well-maintained paths – another World Heritage benefit – lead on up around steep hillsides, then we traverse the high ground very pleasingly, often on the narrow ridgetop, then descend steadily to a stream in a riotously verdant valley. Walking in the wettest area in Japan has its advantages. We meet some lovely natural forest, and the plantation pines we are in for most of the time are well spaced and enhanced by shrubs and ferns beneath. Another climb and a traverse, then a final descent to a valley get us to lunch at tables by a roadside bar. It is short on atmosphere (lunches aren’t the high point of our days), but the drink-vending machines and a bowl of picnic-supplementing noodles are welcome as well as very “Japanese”.

A nature-as-art moment follows soon after – a group of closely huddled and dead straight bamboo and conifer trunks form an almost-abstract pattern: I feel a drip watercolour coming on. There are lovely ferns under the trees.

 Soon after are a mossy C12 Buddhist stupa and two small statues on a little knoll: a good window into the Japanese mind: here are Buddhism and Shugendo, the peculiar local syncretic sect, coexisting happily; and the humble beauty to be found in the small and plain-to-the-extent-of-primitive stonework.

A bit more traversing on a fine path and a descent get us to Chikatsuyu, down in a wide river plain, charming and loved if surprisingly slightly scruffy to the Western eye: a different mindset, indeed. We have a drink (clear, sweet plum juice) on the verandah of the old-fashioned childhood home of a well-known painter. It is all airy, flexible tatami-and-screen space, spirit soothing just in the viewing. An intellectuals’ home, says John.

We climb back up through the outskirts, passing an empty-looking school, then we are back in the woods. Cottages and rice terraces dwindle to forest on the edges of all these villages. After a while, we are winding along quiet hillside roads lined by scattered houses. We reach the oji, above its torii gate, under amazing old cedars at Tsugizakura-oji. Nearby is a reconstructed teahouse, a simple square room with a central fire pit, open at the front. Its thick, luscious thatch costs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace, its susuki grasses and the requisite skills hard to get these days.

We drop steeply to our inn just below a main but emptyish road. An attractive, archaic-style chamber is to house the stray men; we will eat and bathe, and the rest sleep, in the family’s new  house next door. Beers and happy talk in the gentle late-afternoon sun on the steps of our old building. Then boiling-by-rota in the small tub. Then another superb dinner, cooked by the family, on a tatami floor: we make almost no pretence of tucking our legs away.

More drinks back on the verandah, as the promised rain begins. I manage to crush a pretty little ceramic cup in the darkness. Bed at 9.20, although I type this account for a while, in headtorch-light, to the sound of falling rain, perched on edge of our tatami sleeping platform.

Day 4 – Tsugizakura to Yunomine Onsen

I wake regularly to the sound of driving rain from 4am onward: as predicted. The prospect of 19km of slightly repetitive forest walking in 100mm (4ins) of rain doesn’t appeal. I look forward to the briefest-ever daily entry: “Walkopedia had the self-confidence to take a taxi”.

But it isn’t to be: John has a suitably truncated walk planned.

After yet another wonderful breakfast (no feet display inhibitions at all by now), we walk in pelting rain to the nearby bus stop to take a short cut to save several hours of walking. My shorts are soaked by the time we get there. I quiz John in the bus about his childhood partly in Japan and his multi-faceted and Japan-focused life. The bus winds for an hour or so through the valleys and tunnels of the maze of central Kii mountains to the important Hosshinmon-oji, the outermost entrance into the sacred precincts of the Hongu Taisha; passing through the gate represented a death and rebirth.

We set off on wet roads and tracks, through charming but empty villages with flowers that are ravishing, even in the storm-gloom. We snack in a forlorn market-shelter in a village with lovely vegetation all around. John talks about the shrinking rural population and Japan’s low marriage rate: many younger men, avid computer gamers, are considered “vegetables” by the women, who prefer to stay unmarried.

Fujuwara Teika, the poet who accompanied an emperor in the early C12 as official recorder and complained the whole way of the privations of the route, thought he was getting near the end of the trail’s miseries here.

We follow paths and small roads through mistily beautiful forests and deserted hamlets, to Fushiogami-oji, famous as a site where a poetess wrote of her distress at not being able to worship at the temple because she had started to menstruate and was thus unclean (the god replied poetically at night that this wasn’t a problem) - and the first spot with a view down to the great Hongu Taisha temple, which is now obscured although whether it is by trees or mist is unclear.

We pass the junction with the Kohechi Trail, the tough route over the mountains from Koyasan. This is now fine forest walking, even in the still driving rain: the ancient way is worn deep into the hillsides, ferns hanging over the side. We reach the end of a ridge with views down onto the Hongu basin. There in the paddies of the valley bottom stands the famous and vast torii gate, the largest in Japan, by the grove where the old shrine stood until it was destroyed by flooding in the late C19 and rebuilt higher up the slope. The hillsides behind are a patchwork of ridges and scraps of mist: it is scroll painting perfection.

Soon after, we meet an endless line of primary school children from Tokyo, brightly coated and cheerful despite the rain.

At Haraido-oji we reach the place of final purification before reaching Hongu Taisha.

The main shrine, to a Shinto deity of mountains and trees, is in the middle of a row of low but beautifully harmonious (again but it really is the right word) pavilions behind a long wooden screen. A group of Japanese visitors presents an almost abstract selection of umbrellas.

Down a great staircase lined with white banners, we are back in the mundane world: a wet village street, shops and restaurants. John, Reggie and I buy some lunch and sit on the verandah of the local museum and chat. (The rest of the group hit a delicious-sounding restaurant, a good choice on a dark day.) The museum has surprisingly little in it, more an information centre than a repository of artefacts.

A nondescript approach through village alleys gets us out into the paddies, on the wide formal path leading straight to the huge iron torii gate and the quiet, dripping copse where the stone terrace of the old temple still stands. A silently numinous place.

We have a final hill to tackle, making a good ascent (getting into the swing at last?), then dropping steeply to Japan’s first ever onsen, which evolved as a site of purification. It is a diminutive shack in an unscenic roadside river bed with a melee of rusting pipes carrying hot spring water to nearby houses, and is close to being overwhelmed by the surge of storm water. Only in Japan.

A dull trudge along the road then five minutes up a final slope gets us with relief to our hotel, a modern building on a ridge looking along a step little gorge. The boots-off moment is one of horror for the staff, who scurry off in search of newspaper. We luxuriate in the now-gentle rain in our first outdoor onsen.

A drink in the characterless large-hotel lobby, then the best dinner yet (some claim) in a large private room (with low back supports, yippee, and no embarrassment about stretching out our well-walked legs): a panoply of miraculous dishes.  A tired and still-a-bit-jetlaggy bed.

Day 5 – Yunamine Onsen to Koguchi

Awake at 6-ish, and I’m not going to get back to sleep, even with eyeshades on. The great news is, it’s sunny! The river is glistening at the bottom of our narrow valley. With breakfast at a lazy 7.30, Reggie and I head for the onsen and a quiet early morning simmer.

Breakfast is taken in the same manner as supper, backs supported and legs stretched. “Onsen porridge”, ie congee boiled with mineral onsen water, onsen boiled eggs whose yolk is solid but its white watery: strange. Another stunning array of delicious dishes. Getting repetitious?

We take a bus a few km down the road to where the trail heads back up into the hills for the two-day leg across to Nachi. We buy supplements for our lunch of rice balls and are introduced to Kyoko Bando, a local guide, naturalist and artist who will be joining us for the next couple of days. She carries a huge conch shell wrapped in padding, which she blows regularly from her place in the rear as we proceed. We work out that what sounds a tad rough is actually very skillful.

We’re off, climbing once again through quiet village outskirts. A huge black butterfly flaps (it is too big to flutter) around a stand of bamboo. Then we are heading ever upward in surprisingly attractive plantation forest, bright sunlight dappling trunks and trail. We gain views back to the Hongu valley and the high range to its north. This is some of the best walking yet, a wide path dug into steep slopes, and a deep sense of the people through the ages struggling up through this impenetrable, remote landscape.  This path needs to be walked: World Heritage Site status is often double-edged, but a good thing if it helps keep this tradition alive. This is apparently the most-walked stretch of the KK, but you wouldn’t know it: we see a handful of people all day.

These planted forests are a wasting resource, too expensive to cut by locals, and they don’t yet have their heads round shipping in Indonesians to do the job.

We snack in a glade below some fine old steps. This a snakey area, and we are advised to keep out of the undergrowth.

Onward. Reggie looks a touch disconcerted, his habitual silent place at the back taken by Kyoko, who chats then blows her conch, an opportunity, he later says, for camouflaged passing of wind.

We’re on a ridge now, and the glimpsed views are getting better. Then we are by a little oji statue at a cliff-top pass, with big views of the green, green ranges to the north and west, patches of variegated old forest and monocolour plantation decorating the hillsides. Kyoko has a major conche-blow. A beautiful snake, long, slender, browny-green, is curled up and basking on a ledge just below us. Not poisonous, John says.

A  lovely meander along the hilltops. We pause at a road, then we inspect an oji to a Boddhisatva who helps stabilize the drifting spirits of dead children and travellers.

We lunch at the stone base of another teahouse by a stand of lovely tall old pines, with one of many (newish) steles bearing a relevant poem, in this case about the poet mourning his mother while on the pilgrimage. A patch of ferns is incandescent in a shaft of sun through the straight trunks.

The remarkable John, who really does know every stone we pass, but wears his knowledge lightly, says the owners were said to have tricked travellers into making an unnaturally early start by putting hot water into the bamboo pole their cockerel sat on, causing him to think dawn was approaching and to start an early crow, so they could rob them and throw them off the nearby cliff before anyone else was about.   

 Soon after, we pass through an array of trunks that morph, in the strong dappled light, into the complex columns of a late gothic cathedral.

Our afternoon consists of a long wind along the high hillsides, over minor cols and through patches of good native forest, all the time in lovely dappled light.

Reg is still at the back with the diminutive Kyoko blowing her conch just behind him: it is a Monty Python moment: brave, brave Sir Reggie.

We are overtaken by a heavily laden young couple. You could do the KK cheaply and easily under you own steam.

After a view across the deep Koguchi valley to tomorrow’s long climb, we start a steep descent on mossy old steps and roots. Tania has a nasty fall off the side of the trail. Her face is scraped and bruised, but it could have been so much worse.  Phew. We pass old rice terraces now replanted with trees. It is melancholy: all the centuries of labour creating and maintaining these complex systems, and now an ageing and shrinking population can’t manage all the fields.

Then we are out in the broad Koguchi valley, crossing the river on a smart metal bridge. A fisherman wields the longest rod I have ever seen. Jock and Reg, our specialist pescators, can’t explain it. A tiny old woman can’t help standing and gazing at us (in awe? horror?) as we pass.

Through a tunnel, we are in the ville centre, where nothing seems to be happening. The village around the wide mountain river, with its abandoned school now a ryokan, feels completely authentic, real rural Japan: even the vending machines feel right.

We adjourn to the river for a swim: the water is cold but just right after a hot day’s walking. We drift with the current past azalias in flower. Magical.

A delectable short sleep, face down on my futon, then it is beers-in-late-sun time, always a good time with our group: a lot of laughs, real interest in what we are up to, and a growing fund of shared experience.

Dinner is taken on CHAIRS at a TABLE! Another superb meal in the old school hall. One more drink back outside and it is bedtime – each night we stop a little earlier and a tad soberer.

Day 6 – Koguchi to Nachi Taisha

We are up earlier than ever – a 6am breakfast for a 7am departure. Breakfast enters repetition-land: another selection of varied and delicious dishes topped up with two bowls of rice: we have a big walk today.

It is a hazily sunny morning as we cross the river on a third (old) bridge, passing a fine traditional house which is apparently the village head man’s house in the process of conversion into a café on Kumano Kodo/World Heritage Site hopes. I fear for its prospects, given how quiet the village seems. We supplement our lunch at the old-fashioned shop, a general store unlike anything we have seen, with goods laid out fairly haphazardly on long wooden tables.

We are soon on steps up through the outlying cottages and into the forest, which feels substantially the same as yesterday, long hauls through plantations – whether cypress or cedar or red pine I was never sure, as all trunks were long and slender and the foliage high above – interspersed with respites while we traverse besides the remains of rice terraces with decades-old trees sprouting out of them. Apparently the village was up the hill, and moved to the valley bottom where the road was built. We are climbing a bit over 800m, straight up from the valley to the high point of our trail, and I only remember a few things from the grind. We reach a flat-faced boulder, Waroda-ishi, with the names of three Boddhisatvas inscribed in Sanskrit. It was until recently covered in a perfect carpet of much-loved moss, which was removed at night to the horror of the locals and Kodo-lovers alike. A big hunt is on and they think they have traced it to a bonsai shop in Osaka surreptitiously selling ‘Kumano moss’.

The path is lovely, often on old stone steps winding through slender trunks, sometimes teetering along nearly sheer hillside.

We get to what soon becomes apparent is the “Chest Cutting Slope” of which John had warned and, which lives up to its name, an endless flight of steps heading up the ridge into the mists. It is a long slog, but we get there, fairly spread out by the end.  We are in cloud forest now, the tree trunks and boulders blanketed in mosses and tiny ferns.

At the high pass, we read of the complaining poet Fujiwara Teika writing in 1201 that “This route is very rough and difficult. It is impossible to describe precisely how tough it is.” I hope something has been lost in translation, or are we meeting the Japanese McGonegall?

My memory blurs here. I think we traverse a while in the light rain before dropping steeply to a hut by a road, where we have a snack while the next band of rain starts in earnest. Then it is up the road for a while, just above the ebullient mountain stream. We see some black-backed, red-bellied newts in the drain. Then we are back into forest, and encountering round boulders so perfectly swathed in little ferns and moss that they look like sculpted English box balls.

A lot of undulating through pretty woodland, still plantation but more open and laced with undergrowth, then another climb, gets us to the day’s second high pass and lunch under a shelter on the site of another tea house. We can faintly see, far below us, the headlands and bays of the sea. Nearer is the deep cleft that contains Nachi, our destination.

My main memory of the descent is quite how chatty our group still is, despite a tough and wet day, now carefully descending slippery steps and roots. Torquil’s knowledge of 70s’ pop trivia stands out. After a long flight of Edo-period steps, we emerge quite suddenly into the forecourt of the Nachi Shrine, in front of a graceful temple to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, who has changed sex along the Silk Road from her male Indian origins.  Beyond a primped and sculpted garden by a group of harmonious roofs is the famous Nachi-no-Otaki waterfall, at 133m the highest in Japan, a great spout Issung from a notch above a smooth grey cliff. The main shrine, to the goddess Izanami, is interesting and, like all Japanese temples, less visually raucous than its Chinese or Tibetan counterpart would be. Next door is a demonstration of how orange buildings can, if well arranged, look harmonious.

Below the nondescript tourist-tatty town, we gaze up at the great cascade. My eye is caught by a big, primeval looking fern, whose fronds seem to be composed of smaller ferns.

Our walk is over. We pile gratefully into a minibus which takes us to a down-at-heel fishing port set in stunning Ha Long Bay-like towers of rock emerging from the sea, where a ferry takes us out to a 1970s hotel hugging the side of just such an excrescence.

We change quickly and are soon scrubbing down in the outdoor sea-side onsen, which we reach through a tunnel in the rock. The water is milky blue, sulphur-smelling and very hot. A lower pool is milder, with raised seats to cool your chest when it all gets too much.

Then it is a beer by the picture window in our room, then more group beer, then through two tunnels we find a final superb meal in a private room, although it is a sad feature of the trail that beer and a walker’s appetite militate for wolfing my supper rather than the subtle savouring it deserves. At the end, Warwick starts a round of speeches, initially alarming to an Englishman (public displays of feelings), but actually a delightful way to round up a wonderful week, high praise and affection for our guide John being a common theme. I am impressed by the Aussies’ impromptu eloquence.

We retire to karaoke, where we fulfill every stereotype of the Gaijin: tall, mainly overweight, dancing inappropriately while we take turns to sing very badly –any hint of embarrassment banished by alcohol. We are eventually thrown out when they close the bar. The echoing racket as we return through the tunnels is laughable in this land of restraint.

One final onsen – mellow in the night time rain – then it is tidying up for an early departure and a final night on a futon on the tatami. It is done.

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