Winter in Japan

Winter in Japan is a white wonderland in Asia. Here are 20 places to visit in winter by travel writers Christina Pfeiffer and Maria Visconti.

Winter in Japan

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Mt. Fuji from an airplane in winter in Japan
Mt. Fuji from an airplane in Shizuoka is an amazing sight to see while travelling in Japan in winter. Photo: ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

Winter in Japan is like a fairytale with snow-covered slopes and while you won’t see flowering cherry blossoms, there are plenty of other winter treasures to discover in Japan’s four islands – Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku. Don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of things to do in Japan in winter.

If you’ve never been to Japan in winter, I’d recommend you seriously consider it. Even if you’ve never been to Japan and are planning your first trip, while winter may not be the first season that comes to mind there are many reasons to visit during winter in Japan. 

Why winter in Japan is a great time to visit

First, here are five good reasons to plan a trip to Japan during the months.

Japan is beautiful in winter

Just about anywhere you go in Japan during winter, there are places to visit in Japan during winter where a white wintery landscape is straight out of a picture book. 

Japan is less crowded in winter

Aside from skiers, snowboarders and those who like winter sports, most visitors shun travelling to Japan in winter because it’s cold so you’ll be able to avoid the crowds and tour at leisure. 

Winter in Japan the season to ski

Visiting Japan in winter is an opportunity to learn to ski or snowboard and Japan has excellent winter resorts that are reasonably priced. 

Looking for inspiration? Here are some travel with friends quotes to share.

Winter is the season to soak in a Japanese Onsen

There’s no better time to warm the bones than winter in Japan while soaking in traditional Japanese hot springs.

In Japan there is a way of doing everything – they call it ‘the Japanese way’ – and bathing publicly in an onsen is no exception.

All hand-held showers are installed at knee-level. So are the mirrors.

Showering standing up, a thing I have been doing for a few decades now, is somehow out of place here.

Winter festivals in Japan are amazing

Winter in Japan is the time to rug up and be dazzled by the winter illuminations of a winter festival and there are many to choose from around Japan.

Although winter is our favourite season in Japan, here’s a Japan Itinerary to help you plan your trip anytime of the year.  

When does Japan experience winter?

Japan winter months are from December to January. In general, Japan in winter is usually sunny and the humidity is low.

  • Japan in December is festive, with holiday decorations in the cities and ski resorts. Japan weather in December is cold and it’s important to dress in layers.
  • Japan in January is a great time to go to catch some of the vibrant festivals.
  • In Japan in February, you can expect the temperatures to be around 10ºC (42°F) and it’s a lot colder than this at night. Check the weather here

Sample Japan Winter Itinerary

If you’re mainly interested in exploring cities then five days in Japan in winter covering three cities would be enough but if you have more time, I would suggest getting out of the city and visiting other places in Honshu, Hokkaido and Shikoku. Hokkaido is particularly great in winter for its wonderful festivals.  

Day 1 – Tokyo

Day 2 – Tokyo

Day 3 – Tokyo

Day 4 – Kyoto

Day 5 – Osaka

Places to visit in Japan in Winter

Honshu

by Maria Visconti

If you’re hankering for a white winter wonderland holiday and wondering where to spend winter in Japan, Honshu has plenty of options.

Here are travel writer Maria Visconti’s seven best places to visit on Honshu Island in Japan in winter.

1- Hakuba Ski Resort

Japan winter Hakuba Iwatake Ski Resort
One of the fun things to do in Japan in winter is learning to ski at Hakuba Iwatake Ski Resort Snow Person, Hakuba, Nagano. Text: Maria Visconti. Photo: ©Tourism Commission of Hakuba Village/©JNTO

Bindings, boards, boots and baths. Does this list give you a tingling and a craving for the best powder in the world?

Have you ever been skiing in Japan?

If you have, you know already how wonderful a Japanese winter can be but if you haven’t, a trip to Hakuba, Nagano will introduce you to the joys of a Japan winter trip.

If you have never been skiing then one of the fun things to do in Japan in winter is learning to ski.

The instructors are cool, hip and superbly qualified.

They speak English well as they follow the snow trail on two hemispheres teaching year round.

They will transform you into a Japan winter snow-bunny in no time.

Have kids? My, Oh, My… I have seen crocodiles of young kids (some as young as five years old) carving long curves on the dry snow of Hakuba’s seven ski resorts.

They follow their ever-patient instructor as if attached to him by an invisible umbilical cord.

Winter in Japan is a great time to visit with kids too, with plenty of other activities such as ice skating, snowshoeing and sled rides.  

Hakuba has accommodation and activities to suit all styles to choose from including Western hotels and Japanese ryokans. 

There are a variety of runs, from black runs to wide open gentle slopes.

Would you ski or snowboard?

Snowshoe in silent forests or ski-doo for an adrenaline rush?

This mighty ring of mountains sits squarely on a steady supply of thermal waters.

You will, no doubt, soak in the various onsen for their restorative waters and enjoy a long, soothing soak after a day out on the slopes.

2- Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands (Nagano)

Visiting Japan in December Utsukushigahara Highland
Utsukushigahara Highland in Nagano one of the most beautiful places in winter in Japan. Photo: ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

In central Nagano, non-skiers will love the view from the Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands in Yatsugatake Chushin Kogen Quasi National Park in the Japan winter months.

The flat lava plateau sits 2000m and the 360-degree view of the Japanese Alps from Ogato is breathtaking.

It’s a pastoral scene in summer, with green pastures and grazing cows but in the Japan winter season, the snow-covered mountain tops look ethereal.

Other attractions include an open-air museum and the Utsukushi-ga-hara Art Museum and 400 impressive sculptures.

3 – Shirakawago (Gifu)

winter in japan in Shirakawago
UNESCO World Heritage Shirakawago is a charming place to spend winter in Japan. Text: Maria Visconti.

Winter in Japan is different, exotic, with a culture of its own.

If you’re not a skier or snowboarder, one of the most charming places to visit in winter in Japan is Shirakawago.

Travel to Japan in winter and you can combine skiing with a fabulous discovery trip.

After all, you have come quite a long way and you’ll wish to get the most out of your airfare here.

Within easy reach, there are places that will blow your mind with quaintness and appeal.

UNESCO World Heritage Shirakawago is one of them.

It was then, only about 10 years ago, that Japan and the world ‘discovered’ Shirakawago with its thatched gingerbread houses and unique culture.

Today this World Heritage site has opened its doors to visitors.

Verdant and colourful in summer and clad in a thick coating of snow in winter, Shirakawago has some Minshuku (guest houses) where you can stay.

The Japan winter season in Shirakawago is a photographer’s paradise (bring your tripod to take some night pictures when the houses are all lit up for your enjoyment).

This tiny village existed in isolation for centuries until tunnelling technology opened up an easy way to get here without having to surmount the mighty mountain ranges that have kept Shirakawago undiscovered for a long time.

Thatched cottages with eaves that almost touch the ground called Gassho-zukuri because the high-pitched rooves look like hands folded in prayer are scattered around this sleepy hollow where the locals originally survived by farming silkworms up in their attics.

Today Shirakawago is a magnet for local tourism and a handful of international guests visiting Japan.

A few houses have opened their doors to travellers as guesthouses (minshuku).

Shirakawago winter looks like a few other places in Japan as it is almost unrecognisable under a heavy cover of snow.

It really looks like the postcard from an imaginary village where silk weaving elves create eerily beautiful scarves.

4 – Takayama (Gifu)

winter in Japan - takayama
Exploring Takayama is one of the cultural things to do in winter in Japan. Text: Maria Visconti.

Another place to visit in Japan in winter is Takayama, also known as Little Kyoto because of its ancient sites and well-maintained Edo period buildings.

Takayama also has special local foods, such as sansai (mountain vegetables), wasakana (river fish) and Hida beef – a rival to Wagyu beef.

You’ll love the local soba noodles and there are quality sake breweries where you can keep warm on your Japan winter holiday.

Hōba miso is a local way of grilling beef or fish on a hōba leaf (from the native Magnolia obovata) or also on an oak leaf.

Takayama has the highest snowfalls in Japan and is one of the best cities to visit in Japan in winter for photography.

Picture red lacquered bridges, framed by red-pines bonsai-ed to please the eye with kimono-clad women going over it.

Visiting Takayama is a quintessential Japanese winter experience.

As Takayama has always been a salubrious area, the old quarter is dotted with the stunning-looking Kura houses.

A Kura house is a mud brick, fire-resistant building among the all-wood and paper houses of old, where citizens would store their valuables to save them from the regularly occurring fires.

Today, these attractive storage houses are converted to boutiques, trendy cafes and sake tasting locales.

Takayama is a town for all seasons: two famous festivals take place here in autumn and spring with the magnificent floats on display year-round at the museum.

If you’re visiting Japan in winter, do put Takayama on your list and tick of these things to do in Takayama.

5 – Gero (Gifu)

winter in japan
Soaking in a Japanese onsen in Gero is a comforting way to spend winter in Japan. Text: Maria Visconti.

Gero practically exists as a place for ‘taking the waters’ as it sits on rich underground currents of thermal waters.

Be brave, undress and slip in the hot water pools but there are a few steps to follow prior to doing so.

It’s one of the best places to visit in Japan in winter to warm up.

The Suimeikan Ryokan has three onsen inside their luxury premises (six if you consider the three become six as they are gender separate).

My favourites are always the open-air ones.

There is nothing like walking out naked to the outdoor pools (even better if it is snowing) and settling in for a relaxing long soak amongst rocks.

The rocks are artistically displayed among greenery with backdrops of panoramic views that offer the perfect scenery to enjoy in Japan in winter.

Enjoy the scenery of snowed-covered landscapes, mountains and gushing rivers.

One of the best travel tips I can give you when visiting Japan is that soaking in an open-air onsen is a quintessential winter in Japan experience.

 

6- Shinhotaka Ropeway (Gifu)

Japan winter holiday Shinhotaka Snowshoeing
Shinhotaka snowshoeing is a more active way to explore the mountains on a Japan winter holiday. Photo: ©SATOYAMA EXPERIENCE

Glide across the Hotake Mountain Range on the Shinhotaka Ropeway. The range is home to Oku-Hotakedake, Japan’s third highest mountain.

From the Shinhotaka Ropeway’s decker gondola cars, you’ll get a panoramic view of the Okuhida region’s mountains and valleys.

If you’re an active traveller, you might like to try snowshoeing in Shinhotaka, which is a guaranteed workout!

7- Tokyo

tokyo in winter
Visiting Japan in winter? Start your trip in Tokyo. Photo: Maria Visconti

Winter, in my view, is the best time to visit Japan’s largest cities. 

In large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, it is cold but you will be spending time commuting from one place to the other, mainly underground or in well-heated train stations.

In Tokyo, all buildings are kept at a steamy temperature and I almost found them too hot.

From Cat Cafes to Owl Cafes, Ninja Restaurants to fine dining, electronic cities to manga districts, Tokyo is vibrant and full of life.

Tokyo Central station is well signed posted and has a travellers’ help office with English-speaking experts who provide maps and explanations on how to get from A to B.

If you, like me, get lost despite expert help there is always a kind person who will show you how to get to where you are going.

This is the beauty of Japan: its people.

There are some pretty crazy things to do in Tokyo Midtown in winter!

Head underground and explore fantastic eateries and crazy themed cafes.

A winter festival in Japan, the Setsubun Festival sends away winter by throwing beans to the devils while the Kamakura Festival is also very popular leading into spring. 

8- Hot springs and waterfalls (Gunma) 

Ohsen Falls in Winter in Japan
Japan winter wonder at the Ohsen Falls in Ohsen-no-taki, Kusatsu, Gunma. Photo: ©Kusatsu Onsen Tourism Association/©JNTO

One of the best things to do in Japan in winter is to visit a hot springs region.

Winter in Japan is a great time to warm up in the hot sprains of Gunma, a picturebook region packed with hot springs and ski resorts.

With over 200 onsens, Gunma is certainly an authentic place to go in winter for a Japanese hot spring experience.

Imagine spending winter in Japan experiencing the healing waters of the various onsens. Gunma’s four onsen regions are Kusatsu, Ikaho, Minakami and Shima.

Seeing a frozen waterfall in winter is a magnificent sight. The 25m Onsen waterfall in Kusatsu has multiple streams frozen on red rock.

This mountainous region is home to a number of ski resorts and ski hills, the highest is Kosatsu Kokusai Ski Resort.

9- Jigokudani Monkey Park

Seeing the snow monkeys warming up in the hot springs is one of the amazing things to see in winter in Japan.

At Jigokudani Monkey Park, there is white magic in the air and it’s cold.

The nearly 2km mountain path is mercifully flat but snowy and icy winding its way through a tall cedar forest.

Anticipation mounting, I cannot wait till we get to the hot springs where the much-loved snow monkeys of Japan soak in winter.

Big plops of snow falling from the cedars’ laden branches are about the only sound around.

Finally, the forest gives way and a sign of the times reads: “Airborne cameras not permitted to fly here”, so don’t bother to bring your quadcopter to Jigokudani Monkey Park.

When we finally arrive, there are about 30 snow monkeys about, big and small.

Some soak in the hot springs, some forage for food and one sits on the big casing of the video-cam that permanently surveys the site.

It is only while editing the photos that I discovered this was a mother with a baby at her breast mostly hidden from view and therefore protected from the cold.

The only chance to see snow monkeys bathing at Jigokudani Monkey Park is in winter.

They only do it to keep warm so they are unlikely to go in the hot springs when the weather warms up.

The valley where the snow monkeys hang out is very deep and the sunshine never gets to the bottom so be prepared for cold and slippery conditions on the approaching 2km trail.

Temperatures in winter are always below freezing reaching to a very cold -10 Celcius and there are no facilities for wheelchairs at Jigokudani Monkey Park.

These endearing snow monkeys are native to Japan and are nomadic, foraging wherever they like and moving around the forest freely.

Jigokudani Monkey Park has adopted a policy of feeding them with nutritious pellets in order to keep them coming to the site on a regular basis, however, feeding times are not regular and not announced.

These macaques live in groups and show strong loyalty to their family.

Females remain within their birth tribe while males break off to find partners among other tribes.

Females give birth at night only and mainly in spring.

These snow monkeys retire at sundown to sleep on tree branches or in the hollows of big tree roots; they huddle together while holding hands and legs.

Make sure you have plenty of memory in your camera, as you will shoot none stop for about two hours.

The expressions on the monkey’s faces are fascinating, especially while being groomed by others.

They look ecstatic or as in a trance.

The Jigokudani Monkey Park is not far from Hakuba ski fields but a bit complex to get to by public transport.

Your best bet is to go to the Nagano station and take a bus from there.

However, hotels can help organise a day-trip, as there are some combination excursions with some interesting inclusions such as a visit to the town of Obuse, where Hokusai spent his later years. 

10- First Tadami River Bridge (Fukushima)

Things to do in Japan in winter First Tadami River Bridge
One of the amazing things to do in Japan in winter is to cross the First Tadami River Bridge Onuma-gun, Fukushima. Photo: ©kenkou hoshi/©JNTO

For those who love trains, the 174m bridge crossing the Tadamigawa River is a fabulous experience and one of the most picturesque places to visit in Japan during winter.

A photograph of the bridge in winter is a picturesque sight and crossing the bridge on a train is an experience to remember.

The photographic viewpoint is a five-minute bus ride from Mishima and a scene straight out of Game of Thrones!

11- Kinosaki Hot Spring (Hyogo)

Winter Japan Kinosaki Hot Spring
Kinosaki Hot Spring in Hyogo is a charming sight in Japan in winter. Photo: ©Toyooka City/©JNTO

Kinosaki Hot Springs is a charming old-world onsen town located in the Hyogo prefecture on the Sea of Japan.

The hot springs were discovered in the 8th century and the bathhouses were built over the springs.

Try a soak in Goshono-yu (Imperial Palace Bath), which has multi-level outdoor pools facing a waterfall and steam sauna, or Satono-yu bathhouse, which has two kinds of baths (traditional and Romanesque), waterfalls, mist rooms and a range of sauna rooms.

12- Takeda Castle Ruins (Hyogo)

Takeda Castle Ruins Japan winter fantasy
Takeda Castle ruins is a Japanese winter wonderland fantasy in Asago City, Hyogo. Photo: ©Toshihisa Yoshida/©JNTO

On a misty morning, the ruins of Takeda Castle looks like it’s floating on clouds.

Known as the Castle in the Clouds or Japan’s Machu Picchu.

The mystical castle in Asago City was built in 1411, however, the buildings have crumbled but the foundations can be seen clearly.

Hokkaido

Hokkaido island in Japan is the ultimate winter destination for those who aren’t skiers or snowboarders. Hokkaido is a wonderland of winter festivals, wildlife and activities.

13- Sapporo Snow Festival

Japan in winter Sapporo Snow Festival
Sapporo Snow Festival isi the top Japan winter festival to put on your list. It’s in Sapporo City, Hokkaido. Photo: ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

Each year, more than two million visitors flock to see the jaw-dropping ice sculptures at the Sapporo Snow Festival.

If you only have time for one festival while visiting Japan in winter, this should be it!

Sapporo Snow Festival started in 1950, with six snow sculptures.

Now, teams travel to the festival from all over the world to compete in this world-famous snow sculpture competition.

The festival sculptures look like a fairyland lit up at night.

There are a host of fun winter activities at the festival, such as snow rafting, tubing, ice sliding and ice fishing.

When: 31 January to 11 February 2019.

14- Otaru Snow Light Path Festival

Winter festival Japan Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
Otaru Snow Light Path Festival in Otaru City, Hokkaido is a lovely festival to explore while visiting Japan during the winter season. Photo: ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

The city of Otaru lights up during the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival each winter. Walking the streets of Otaru, which are festooned with lights, candles and snow sculptures, is an enchanting thing to do in winter in Japan.

The best place to soak up the atmosphere is the Otaru Canal, where ball candles made out of fishing equipment float on the water.

Local food stalls sell sushi and Japanese sweets. 

When: 8 to 17 February 2019. Otaru is a port 38km from Sapporo.

15- Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival

Winter in Japan at Sounkyo Hyobaku Festival
Sounkyo Hyobaku Festival in Kamikawa Town, Hokkaido, is a charming Japanese winter wonderland. Photo: ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

Drink at the ice bar, spend a quiet moment in the ice shrine and party at the Sounkyo Ice Fall Festival’s concerts and event.

The ice sculptures of Hokkaido’s famous buildings are impressive and there are a host of Japan winter activities such as ice climbing, snowshoe hiking and the Taisetsu Forest Garden has a host of adventurous winter activities.

When: Late February to late March at Sounkyo hot springs resort and Daisetsuzan National Park. Soumkyo is 200 km from Sapporo.

16- Explore Asahikawa 

Japan winter itinerary Asahiyama Zoo
Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa City, Hokkaido, is fun for the whole family during winter. Photo: ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

As soon as you arrive at Asahikawa Winter Festival you’ll soon see why winter in Asahikawa is the best season to visit.

Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second largest city and it’s a charming place to visit in Japan during the winter.

The city is well-known for its ramen and the Asahiyama Zoo is the to place to visit in Asahikawa for Arctic wildlife.

When: 6 to 11 February 2019

17- Drift ice cruising in Monbetsu

Japan in January - Drift Ice cruise, Monbetsu
Drift Ice cruise from Monbetsu in Hokkaido isi an exciting adventure in Japan in January, February or March.
Photo: ©Yasufumi Nishi/©JNTO

A cruise on an ice breaker is an adventure of a lifetime as you ride onboard an icebreakers while it smashes through drift ice 60cm thick.

The thermometer can drop to -40C as a cold wind blows from Siberia, so rug up!

If you’re lucky you might even get a chance to spot marine life and wildlife, such as seals and eagles.

When: Visit Japan in January to experience this but the ice might hang around until March

18- Onuma Quasi National Park

In the southern part of Hokkaido, Onuma Quasi National Park is a picture book region with lakes, rivers and majestic Mount Komagatake.

Most visitors go in summer, for the hiking, fishing and cycling but those looking for Japan winter landscapes won’t be disappointed by the sight of Mount Komagatake, which is an active volcano, covered in snow.

It’s a fantastic place to enjoy winter in Japan in natural surroundings and activities include snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.

When: It’s a scenic spot to experience Japan in December.

Shikoku

19- Ishizuchi Shrine (Ehime)

Japan winter season Ishizuchi Shrine
The Japan weather in December offers other diversions apart from skiing. Here’s the Ishizuchi Shrine in Saijo City, Ehime. Photo: ©JNTO

Ishizuchi Shrine is spread out across Mount Ishizuchi, which is a holy mountain that dominates the landscape of western Japan.

Locals believe that Ishizuchi is a mystic mountain and the mountain itself is a god.

Wander past the torii gates along winding paths, stone steps, forests and ponds.

Kyushu

20- Visit Mount Tsunumi (Oita)

Japan weather in December Mt. Tsurumi
A stunning spot to put on your Japan winter itinerary – Mt. Tsurumi Snow, Beppu City, Oita. Photo: ©Promotion Airport Environment Improvement Foundation / ©JNTO

Take the ropeway to the top of Mount Tsunumi in Oita, where the views over Kyushu are amazing.

21- Yokagura Festival (Miyazaki)

Travel to Japan in December Yokagura Festival
A cool cultural event for your Japan winter itinerary – Yokagura Festival in Miyazaki. Photo: Yuasa/©JNTO

The Yokagura Festival is a 33-part storytelling Shinto festival and a vibrant celebration in the Miyazaki Prefecture.

According to legend, the Shinto sun goddess became upset at her bother’s pranks and hid in a cave, depriving the world of light.

When: Mid November to end of January. 

20 Places To Visit in Winter in Japan
20 Places To Visit in Winter in Japan
Winter in Japan is an amazing time to visit. Here are our top places to visit #winter #japan #travel #snow #skiing
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I'm a writer, photographer and video blogger based in Queensland, Australia, when I'm not on the road. I've lived in three continents and my career as a travel journalist has taken me to all seven continents. Since 2003, I have contributed travel stories to mainstream media in Australia and around the world such as the Sydney Morning Herald, CNN Traveller, The Australian and the South China Morning Post. I have won many travel writing awards and I'm a full member of the Australian Society of Travel Writers.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! I didn’t know that there are so many things to do in Japan in winter! The views of the Utsukushi-ga-hara Highlands in Yatsugatake Chushin Kogen Quasi National are just breathtaking! And the Kinosaki Hot Springs looks like a true fairy tale! Japan is high on our bucket list, and we can’t wait to go there in a few years. Unfortunately we will never be able to visit it in winter.. Kerstin’s a teacher so we can only travel to faraway places during her long summer vacations. Thanks a lot for this inspiring post! 🙂

  2. The view over the First Tadami River Bridge and the Tadamigawa River is incredible – I would definitely take the bus up to see that. I would love to see the penguin walk at the Asahiyama Zoo too – they are such delightful creatures!

  3. Shirakawago would be gorgeous in the winter. I would love to ride an ice drifter and see the ice sculptures. I didn’t know there are ‘hot pools’ in japan. Are they thermal springs or man made? Interesting that they are no clothing

  4. We enjoyed Japan in the fall. Had planned to go back for cherry blossom season. Was fascinated to see your options for winter. I am not skiing any more. But I do love the ski scene and apres-ski 🙂 Certainly warming up in the hot springs would be on my list. And the winter mountain views are stunning. They say the best views of Mt Fuji are in the winter. You have given me something to think about. Pinned it for future reference.

  5. That is quite a lot of options for winters in Japan. Sking sounds fun, never done it before. I would prefer to attend the festivals too. Loved the mix of white and colorful glimpses of Japan.

  6. Your post has surely convinced me to travel to Japan in winters. It is a pure winter wonderland. Crossing that bridge, hot springs, frozen waterfalls and white landscapes, ice cruising and ice fall festival are going to top our to do beautiful.

  7. Wow, what an awesome post. The Yokagura Festival looks totally unique and the Sapporo Snow Festival is something I have always wanted to see. Oh and these cute little towns with onsens and dripping trees of snow. Yum!

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