Sweets Paradise

Happy holidays, everyone! It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and if you live in America, you’re either fist fighting for TVs at Walmart or rolling on the floor and complaining about how full you are. I’m definitely part of the latter, and today I want to share a foodie experience in Japan that will make you want to curl up in a ball afterwards.

Welcome to Sweets Paradise….an all you can eat dessert buffet in Japan.

Sweets Paradise Japan, cake buffet

Sweets Paradise has a number of locations across Japan, from Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo to Hiroshima and Fukuoka down south. If you love dessert or anything sweet and girly, you should definitely check this place out.

Sweets Paradise Japan

Inside a Sweets Paradise….via Flickr.

Upon entry, customers buy a ticket from a small machine (similar to those at ramen shops) for around $15 a person. Dining at the buffet is limited from 70 to 90 minutes, but have no fear- this is more than enough time to stuff your face.

Sweets Paradise Japan

Behold the glory!

At the buffet, Sweets Paradise has a huge number of sweets, ranging from strawberry shortcake and tiramisu to traditional Japanese sweets such as mocha and green tea cake. There are also a number of seasonal items, such as pumpkin in the fall and Christmas cake in December. At the end of the buffet, many locations even have a chocolate fountain, and a multitude of cookies, fruits, and other treats to dip.

Sweets Paradise Japan

A selection of deliciousness

If you’re in the mood for something a bit colder, the buffet also has soft serve with every type of topping imaginable as well as a shaved ice machine. Need something to drink? There’s a coffee and espresso machine, a soda machine, and a dozen types of hot and cold tea to suit your fancy.

Sweets Paradise Japan

Tea and cappuccino

Too many sweets at once? Don’t worry- Sweets Paradise also serves a huge variety of pastas, curries, rice, pizza, soup, and salad. This way, you can keep enjoying dessert without being overwhelmed by all the sugar.

Sweets Paradise Japan

Pasta and garlic bread…nom nom nom.

Whenever a new dish is ready, the staff at Sweets Paradise ring a bell to let the customers know. “Chocolate cake is here!” they’ll shout. “Please come and enjoy.”

Sweets Paradise Japan

If you love dessert or are just looking to gorge yourself at a buffet, Sweets Paradise is for you. Come with an empty stomach, and try some Japanese desserts that you’ll be hard-pressed to find at an affordable price anywhere else. Check out their website, and look at some of the delicious sweets they have to offer! The menus are in Japanese, but I think the pictures speak for themselves…and definitely make me hungry.

What’s your favorite dessert? Thanks again for reading, and I hope you saved room for cake tonight!

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Okonomiyaki

A few weeks ago, I talked about some of my favorite Japanese street foods. However, I left one out that is extremely popular both on the street and in restaurants across Japan. Okonomiyaki is a fried pancake, usually composed of batter and cabbage, which can have any number of toppings and mix-ins. This is reflected in its very name; okonomi literally means “to your liking” and yaki means “cooked or fried.”

Okonomiyaki

Via Flickr

While you can find okonomiyaki all over Japan, like ramen, the styles and toppings vary greatly from region to region. It’s most popular in the Kansai area of Japan (around Osaka, Nara, and Kyoto) and Hiroshima.

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Okonomiyaki from Osaka, via Flickr.

Like takoyaki, the pancake batter in okonomiyaki is not sweet. It’s filled with a number of savory ingredients, such as octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, or kimchi.

Just some of the ingredients you can put in okonomiyaki. Green onions, pickled ginger, egg, mushroom, and pork. Via Flickr.

Just some of the ingredients you can put in okonomiyaki. Green onions, cabbage, pickled ginger, egg, mushroom, and pork. Via Flickr.

In Japan, okonomiyaki is typically served at restaurants that only specialize in this dish. There is usually a large griddle at each table or in front of the customer at the bar counter, where the chef or server will cook the okonomiyaki for you.

Okonomiyaki

An okonomiyaki restaurant in Hiroshima. Via Flickr.

There are also many restaurants where you cook it yourself (like I tried), but I wouldn’t recommend this unless you know what you’re doing, or go with someone who has cooked it before!

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Our personal grill at a cook-it-yourself okonomiyaki restaurant

First, customers order what ingredients they would like in their pancake and the server or chef brings out a bowl of raw batter, vegetables, and seafood or meat. Then, everything is mixed together and placed on the hot griddle in a pancake-like shape.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Mixing the ingredients

Okonomiyaki

Once one side is cooked, you use large metal spatulas to flip the pancake over. This is usually the hardest part of cooking okonomiyaki, and without patience or practice, it can end up breaking apart.

Okonomiyaki

Definitely the hardest part of cooking okonomiyaki. It took us a few tries to keep everything together (but it still tasted delicious!)

Once the pancake is cooked all the way through, you can add traditional toppings. First is okonomiyaki sauce (basically the same as takoyaki sauce), then Japanese mayo, katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes), and dried seaweed. Okonomiyaki is then usually broken into bite-sized pieces and left on the cooking surface, so that each piece is hot and eaten right off the griddle.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki sauce (brown glaze), dried seaweed (green flakes), katsuobushi (brown flakes), and Japanese mayo (white lines). Via Flickr.

This type of okonomiyaki (Kansai style) is the most popular and can be found all across Japan. In comparison, the Hiroshima style has layered ingredients rather than mixed. The batter is cooked like a thin crepe and the other ingredients are added as toppings, rather than mixed into the batter. Yakisoba or udon noodles are also an extremely popular layer, topped with a fried egg and a liberal amount of okonomiyaki sauce.

Okonomiyaki

Hiroshima style okonomiyaki. Via Flickr.

While this dish is extremely popular in Japan, I haven’t been able to find it at all in the US. Do you know where I could find some?

In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to try cooking it myself. Just One Cookbook, one of my favorite Japanese food blogs, has a great okonomiyaki recipe. Try it out, and let me know what you think!

Japanese Food Blogs

Have you ever tried cooking Japanese food yourself at home? Now, I know sushi looks excruciatingly complicated, but there are so many other types of Japanese food that are easy to make in your own kitchen! Here in Boston, I constantly try to recreate the meals I enjoyed in Tokyo, such as tomato ramen, Japanese curry, and gyozas.

Homemade Ramen

My own homemade ramen!

I’ve found that many people are intimidated by unfamiliar ingredients, particularly ones that need to be purchased in Asian grocery stores. However, with the right recipes or inspiration, Japanese food is easy to make and extremely delicious.

On today’s Food Feature Friday, I’m divulging from my usual routine and featuring a few of my favorite Japanese food bloggers. So what are you waiting for? Get cooking!

1. Just One Cookbook

Just One CookbookJust One Cookbook is a Japanese food blog written by Nami, a Japanese native who now lives in San Francisco with her family. She posts traditional Japanese recipes that she makes for her family, from sushi and bento boxes to Japanese deserts. Each of her recipes is extremely easy to follow, and include professional photographs that will make your mouth water.

Oyakodon by Namiko Chen- Just One Cookbook

Oyakodon by Namiko Chen- Just One Cookbook

 What really sets Just One Cookbook apart is her explanation of many traditional Japanese ingredients. Nami goes through typical condiments, sauces, and essential foods that are common in Japanese households, but may stump a casual chef. She even explains many Japanese cooking techniques, including wrapping dumplings, preparing seafood for cooking, and even creating decorative garnishes.

Whether you’re looking for a creative bento box for your kids or a delicious recipe for dinner tonight, Just One Cookbook has you covered. Sign up for her emailing list and get new recipes straight in your inbox, with first access to food giveaways as well.

2. Sushi Day

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 10.51.46 AMSushi Day is a great resource for the aspiring sushi chef, or someone looking for new sushi recipes to try. The blog is written by Allison, a web developer from California who also has a passion for sushi. Sushi Day offers everything from simple nigiri (one piece of fish over rice) to inventive maki, such as Honey Green Tea Tilapia rolls, Unicorn rolls, and even rolls using leftover Thanksgiving food!

Lemon Drop Roll by Allison Day- Sushi Day

Lemon Drop Roll by Allison Day- Sushi Day

While Sushi Day is not a blog for beginners, as many of the recipes include sophisticated ingredients or require a few sushi skills, it’s still a great blog to check out. Even if you’re not a sushi chef, the great pictures will make you want to become one. Sushi Day also features tutorials, reviews, and photo features of Allison’s travels in both California and in Japan.

Porki Maki by Allison Day- Sushi Day

Porki Maki by Allison Day- Sushi Day

3. Luxeat

Luxeat

Although this blog isn’t about cooking and recipes, Luxeat is one of my absolute favorite foodie blogs to follow. It’s written by Aiste, a top fashion model who is also passionate about food and travel. Luxeat follows Aiste’s adventures travelling around the world, and the amazing fine cuisine she eats wherever she goes. She’s been to France, Berlin, Spain, Hong Kong, London New York and more, and always has amazing photos documenting her experiences.

My favorite part about Luxeat, however, is her adventures in Japan. Aiste has been to some of the top (and most expensive!) restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. From the legendary Sukiyabashi Jiro Ginza (made famous in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi) to the most expensive tempura in the world, Aiste has tried it all.

Luxeat is perfect for exploring some of the best high-end restaurants in Japan, especially since you’ll probably never get a chance to try them. Just be warned: your neighborhood sushi restaurant probably won’t cut it after seeing some of the masterpieces on this blog.

 That’s it for today’s Food Feature Friday! What are your favorite Japanese food blogs? I’m dying to read more!

Yakiniku

Japan has a real love for going to restaurants and cooking food themselves. I’m not exactly sure why (isn’t the point of going out to eat so that you don’t have to cook?), but it’s certainly a lot of fun. With a group of friends, shared dishes, and the possibility of lighting your sleeves on fire, it’s really neat to try cooking delicious food yourself without the hassle of prep work.

Although you can rarely find these types of restaurants in America (I’m sure people are afraid of lawsuits), there are several types of cook-it-yourself dining experiences in Japan. Today, I want to show you Japanese yakiniku (grilled meat), and introduce you to one of my favorite meals while I lived in Tokyo.

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At yakiniku restaurants, guests sit at tables with a small charcoal grill built into the tabletop. It’s not hot when you when you sit down, so no one risks setting themselves on fire. Later on, your server will spray the grill with oil and light the flames so that it’s hot by the time your dishes come out of the kitchen.

A traditional yakiniku grill

A traditional yakiniku grill

DSC_0651Yakiniku menus offer a variety of meats and vegetables that are seasoned or marinated in many delicious sauces. If you want a little of everything, a lot of restaurants offer a set meal to share, often with steamed rice. If you’re more adventurous or know exactly what you want, you can also order items a la carte.

The menu of a yakiniku restaurant near my university

The menu of a yakiniku restaurant near my university

DSC_0658Some of the most popular meat choices include kalbi (boneless short rib), harami (tender beef from around the diaphragm), beef tongue, chicken, various seafood, and pork belly. Mushrooms, onions, kabocha squash, corn, and peppers are also commonly available for vegetables. If you want to get a little more daring, you can also find a lot of organ meat as well- including heart, liver, intestine, tail, tripe, and stomach.

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I'm getting hungry just thinking about how delicious this was

I’m getting hungry just thinking about how delicious this was

The meats and vegetables come to your table raw and cut into bite-sized pieces. The server will tell you how long each meat needs to cook, and then it’s time to start grilling. Using tongs, you put the raw meat onto the grill and cook to your heart’s content. There are usually several different dipping sauces to choose from on the side, including ponzu (citrus soy sauce) and spicy chili oil.

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DSC_0661Most restaurants will also offer steamed rice or other side dishes to help fill you up. I enjoyed marinated bean sprouts and seaweed with one meal, while another yakiniku restaurant with a Korean influence had a vegetable omelet, kimchi, and salad.

Several types of bean sprouts and seaweed

Several types of bean sprouts and seaweed

Japanese yakiniku is a ton of fun if you don’t mind a little work, and extremely delicious. All the meat is super tender and marinated in amazing sauces, from miso to barbeque.

Yakiniku at a Korean barbecue restaurant

Yakiniku at a Korean barbecue restaurant

And you know what’s awesome? You don’t need to go to Japan anymore to enjoy this awesome experience! Gyu Kaku, a Japanese yakiniku chain I actually ate at in Tokyo, has restaurants all across the US! There’s one right down the street from where I live in Boston, and it’s just as delicious as the yakiniku in Japan. Plus, they offer s’mores as dessert…it’s seriously too hard to resist.

I hope I made you hungry today! Would you try yakiniku, or are you afraid of cooking your own food?

Shibuya

Welcome to Shibuya, home of the famous Hachiko statue, Shibuya Crossing, amazing restaurants, shopping, and some of the best nightlife in Tokyo. There’s seriously something for everyone here, whether you’re looking to shop for the latest fashions or enjoy a night of drinking and karaoke with your friends.

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Shibuya is always alive with neon lights and bustling streets, no matter what time it is. It’s a huge fashion center and particularly popular with young people, which is probably why I found it so fascinating. I like to call Shibuya the New York City of Japan, and if you ever visit there on a Friday night, you’ll see why.

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 When I first got off at Shibuya Station, one of the busiest stations in Tokyo, I was immediately greeted with the mind-boggling sight of Shibuya Crossing. You’ve probably seen it in popular films and TV shows, including Lost in Translation.

Welcome to the madness that is Shibuya Crossing!

Welcome to the madness that is Shibuya Crossing!

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Shibuya Crossing is one of the busiest crosswalks in the world. Cars stop in all directions, allowing hundreds of people to scramble across the intersection. The entire area is surrounded by large TV screens, advertisements, flashing lights, and modern architecture, adding another layer to the experience. It’s absolutely stunning at night and completely overwhelming, and yet Shibuya Crossing made me feel like I was really in Japan for the first time.

If you don’t believe me about Shibuya Crossing, check out the massive crowds in the video above!

If you manage to make it through the crossing alive, Shibuya offers a huge variety of shopping, restaurants, bars, clubs, and nightlife. There are several well-known Japanese department stores in the area, including Shibuya 109, Parco, and Loft, which offer everything from high-end clothing to bento supplies.

Even in the rain, Shibuya is always alive

Even in the rain, Shibuya is always alive

Step in any street in Shibuya, and you'll find dozens of quirky shops and amazing restaurants

Step in any street in Shibuya, and you’ll find dozens of quirky shops and amazing restaurants

And if you’re feeling hungry, don’t worry! You can find everything from ramen shops and kaiten sushi to restaurants specializing in whale meat, Alice in Wonderland cafes, and even…Krispy Kreme. I can’t even get Krispy Kreme in America anymore, but it was delicious in Japan!

Behold the wonder that is Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Behold the wonder that is Krispy Kreme doughnuts.

Shibuya is also a huge center for nightlife in Tokyo. As the sun goes down, thousands of people flock to the multitude of bars, karaoke centers, clubs, and even “love hotels” that this district offers. Because the last trains in Japan stop running around 12:30 am and don’t start again until 4:30 am, many young people dance or drink straight until dawn. I certainly had plenty of days where I came home during the sunrise, and I enjoyed every second of it.

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After all, no one ever remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep.

This salaryman certainly knows how to party. I found him sleeping at 3 am on the streets of Shibuya.

This salaryman certainly knows how to party. I found him sleeping at 3 am on the streets of Shibuya.

If you ever visit Tokyo, make sure you visit Shibuya at least during the day. Even if you aren’t under 30 (and I saw plenty of older salarymen out at night!), it’s still an amazing experience to see the crowds and check out what the youth of Japan are up to. Head over to the Starbucks across from the station, grab a table near the window, and watch Shibuya come to life.

(Featured photo via Gaijin Camera)

Ramen in Japan

I want to begin this post by saying that those who haven’t tried authentic Japanese ramen haven’t really lived. Now, I’m not talking about those freeze-dried noodle chunks you can find for 50 cents in the grocery store (although those can be delicious), but the savory, perfectly balanced noodles served fresh with meat and vegetables. In Tokyo alone there must be hundreds of ramen shops, all with their own unique approach and styles of ramen.

My first ramen experience in Japan, served with soup, salad and fried rice as a lunch set. It was so good, I almost cried (and I wish I was kidding about that!)

My first ramen experience in Japan, served with soup, salad and fried rice as a lunch set. It was so good, I almost cried (and I wish I was kidding about that!)

These noodles aren’t just a popular dish. Ramen is a countrywide delicacy, an art form, and a huge cultural phenomenon.

Second favorite ramen from Japan. This shop was located in Shibuya, and I ate there after class all the time.

My favorite ramen from Japan. This shop was located in Shibuya, and I ate there after class all the time.

I ate ramen at least once a week while I was in Japan, and I never got tired of it. It’s sometimes called gakusei ryori (student cuisine) due to its cheap and filling nature, but even foodies of Japan go to great lengths to grab the perfect bowl. On my way to school, I often passed a popular ramen shop called Ramen Jiro that had lines wrapping around the block at 8 am…. and the restaurant didn’t even open until 11!

Ramen Jiro has a cult-like following in Japan. It's known for its insane portion sizes, fatty broth, and heaping toppings of pork belly, garlic, and vegetables. I never got to try it, but I did go to school right near its original location in Mita!

Ramen Jiro has a cult-like following in Japan. It’s known for its insane portion sizes, fatty broth, and heaping toppings of pork belly, garlic, and vegetables. I never got to try it, but I did go to school right near its original location in Mita!

Different areas of Japan are known for different styles of ramen, each with unique broths and toppings. Sapporo style ramen, for instance, has a rich broth and is topped with corn and butter, while Tokyo style ramen has a soy and dashi (fish and seaweed stock) based broth with bamboo shoots and green onion.

Traditional Tokyo style ramen with shoyu (soy) broth

Ramen with shoyu (soy) broth

Tomato ramen from a specialty ramen shop. The tomato-based broth was filled with angel-hair like ramen noodles, bok choy, and a giant heap of parmesan cheese.

Tomato ramen from a specialty ramen shop. The tomato-based broth was filled with angel-hair like ramen noodles, bok choy, and a giant heap of parmesan cheese.

Typically, there are 4 types of broth, including shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (miso paste), and tonkotsu (pork bone).  Depending on the style of the dish and type of broth, ramen can be topped with a countless number of different ingredients. Some of the most popular include nori (seaweed), bamboo shoots, scallion, leeks, garlic, bean sprouts, egg, and fish cake.

Tonkotsu ramen from Osaka. Notice the cloudy, rich broth. This was by far my favorite type of ramen.

Tonkotsu ramen from Osaka. Notice the cloudy, rich broth. This was by far my favorite type of ramen.

Ramen from a Chinese restaurant

Ramen is originally a Chinese dish, so it’s easy to find in Chinese restaurants across Japan!

Yasai (vegetable) ramen

Yasai (vegetable) ramen

Ramen shops are typically very small, and only have seats at a counter or a few small tables and booths along the wall. Because of this, the shops fill up quickly and customers only stay long enough to eat their ramen before they go. To expedite the process even more, customers often pay for their food before they enter the restaurant using what looks like a vending machine. The guests enter their money, choose the type of ramen they want, and receive a small ticket that they hand to the chef.

Here's how I paid at my favorite ramen shop! You simply insert your money, choose the type of ramen, and get a ticket!

Here’s how I paid at my favorite ramen shop! You simply insert your money, choose the type of ramen, and get a ticket!

A counter at a traditional ramen shop

A counter at a traditional ramen shop

Ramen is great on cold days, when you’re sick, or you’re just looking for a great meal. It’s definitely the dish that I miss the most from Japan, as it’s hard (but not impossible!) to find authentic ramen in the United States. My favorites so far have been Pikaichi in Boston and Terakawa in Philadelphia.

My last ramen in Japan, at Narita airport. This was a sad day.

My last ramen in Japan, at Narita airport. This was a sad day.

Ramen from Terakawa in Philadelphia, courtesy of my Instagram account

Ramen from Terakawa in Philadelphia, courtesy of my Instagram account.

What about you? Where do you get your ramen fix? And more importantly…did I make you hungry yet?

Asakusa

When I lived in Tokyo, I was constantly astounded by the mixture of old and new, tradition and modernity. Despite the differences between glass skyscrapers and wooden shrines, everything seemed to blend together seamlessly. That’s probably what I like the most about Asakusa, a popular destination that used to be home to Tokyo’s entertainment district in the Edo period (1603-1867). Although the area was bombed and severely damaged by World War II, today Asakusa offers a rich cultural experience as well as modern thrills.

With the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance, first glimpses make Asakusa seems like just another modern district

With the Tokyo Sky Tree in the distance, first glimpses make Asakusa seems like just another modern district

Asakusa is probably best known for Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple. Thousands of people flock here every day to pay their respects to the bodhisattva Kannon, or visit one of the other many shrines in the area.

Kaminarimon, the entrance gate that leads to Senso-ji Temple

Kaminarimon, the entrance gate that leads to Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji Temple

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My favorite part of the Temple grounds, however, was the long corridor of both traditional and modern shops that offer everything from keychains and Hello Kitty bags to yukata (summer robes) and traditional street snacks.

The main shopping street, Nakamise

The main shopping street, Nakamise

Here's the main street later on in the year. The decorations change to match the seasons

Here’s the main street later on in the year. The decorations change to match the seasons

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Asakusa is a great place to find souvenirs, especially if you’re looking for traditional Japanese arts. I must have come here 5 times, in search of the perfect gifts for my family and friends.

Traditional Japanese sandals, also called zori

Traditional Japanese sandals, also called zori

Ceramic dishes and cute pigs!

Ceramic dishes and cute pigs!

I regretted buying one of these, even though they were close to $40

I regretted not buying one of these, even though they were close to $30

Owl coin purses

Owl coin purses

Kimono shop

Kimono shop

Hungry? Asakusa is widely known for its tempura. Although I never had a chance to try it, I still had plenty of amazing meals in and around the temple. If you’re in the mood for a traditional snack, the vendors of the nakamise have plenty of options. If not, there are dozens of noodle shops and Western cafes just outside. My favorite food of Asakusa would have to be the ice cream- I’ve never seen so many interesting flavors from one vendor, and I wanted to try them all! I’ll cover the street food of Japan a little later, but here’s a few meals I managed to enjoy in Asakusa:

So many flavors!!

So many flavors!!

My favorite flavors- green tea on the left and sakura (cherry blossom) on the right

My favorite flavors- green tea on the left and sakura (cherry blossom) on the right

Other meals from Asakusa: katsu (pork cutlet) with soba noodles

Katsu (pork cutlet) with soba noodles

Kitsune udon

Kitsune (sweet fried tofu) udon

Gyoza (dumpling) set with fried chicken and rice

Gyoza (dumpling) set with fried chicken and rice

Asakusa is a great place to check out traditional Tokyo, but if you’re missing modernity, there are plenty of options around. Just across the Sumida river lies Tokyo Skytree, Japan’s tallest structure and the tallest tower in the world. There, guests can shop, explore an aquarium, eat at 5-star restaurants, and observe Tokyo from its full height of over 2000 feet.

Asakusa near the Sumida River, with the Tokyo Skytree in the distance

Asakusa near the Sumida River, with the Tokyo Skytree in the distance

I think the Tokyo Skytree is a post for another time. Until then, enjoy Asakusa and the cultural experience it has to offer. Where do you want to visit next? Let me know in the comments below!

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