As tourism has been absolutely booming lately along the country’s “Golden Route,” it’s easy to want to avoid crowds and explore Japan off the beaten path!

While planning a Japan trip may seem a bit intimidating, I can empathise that it’s not always an easy task to find these lesser-known destinations in Japan. How do you know where to start? 

Have no fear my newfound friend. Over the past decade, I’ve done my fair share of research and travelling off the beaten path in Japan (as well as the well-trodden areas) as this is part of being an invisible tourist. I’m all about seeing the best of a country while simultaneously doing what I can to avoid contributing to overtourism issues.

Stunning Hidden Gems to Discover in Japan Off the Beaten Path | The Invisible Tourist

If you’re looking to tailor your very own Japan off the beaten track itinerary, this handy guide to spots often overlooked by foreign visitors will provide you with some inspiration for your own adventure. Here you’ll find many of the destinations I’ve visited in person, as well as some others that are on my Japan bucket list.

Interested in discovering how to not look like a tourist by visiting the Japan less travelled and some gorgeous hidden gems? Then read on for more!

This post contains affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may receive a small commission if you click through and make a purchase. 

Stunning Places to Discover in Japan Off the Beaten Path | The Invisible Tourist
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Discover the Japan Less Travelled

Sure, most people visiting Japan for the first time want to see cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima along the Golden Route. These are cities Japan is famous for, and with good reason.

But there are literally so many lesser-known and secret places in Japan that many tourists seem to miss during their whirlwind visit. And I don’t want that for you!

As I’m pretty much addicted to all things Japan, I’m forever looking for new destinations and planning my future visits there. This guide explores a range of places I’ve personally visited and plan to someday including small towns in Japan, the best nature in Japan, things to do at each destination and much more categorised by region. 

I’ve even found some alternatives to popular destinations so keep an eye out for my tips along the way.

Regions of Japan Map

 

With that said, are you ready to venture off Japan’s Golden Route? Let’s begin by starting in the south in Okinawa and working up north towards Hokkaido to make things easy. Which locations will you choose to add to your Japan trip?

Kyushu Off the Beaten Path

Okinawa

We all know Japan is synonymous with snow-capped mountains and amazing autumn foliage. But did you know there’s a place to escape with sandy beaches and turquoise waters that could be mistaken for Hawaii? Complete with coral bays, Okinawa is an ideal destination for snorkelling and diving.

As the crow flies, the laid-back Islands of Okinawa (Okinawa Shoto 沖縄諸島) are situated just over 100 kilometres south-west of Japan’s mainland. The isolated location of the islands and tropical climate means it’s the perfect destination to visit in Japan off the beaten track.

Once you’ve seen the stunning landscape and learnt more about local life there, it’s easy to see why this cluster of seventeen isles are home to the oldest centenarians (and supercentenarians) in the world!

 

Okinawa in Japan off the beaten path

Kyushu Island 

As Japan’s third-largest island, Kyushu 九州 is bursting with beauty and historical gems to uncover. Its largest city of Fukuoka is actually closer to Seoul (South Korea) than it is to Tokyo, which resulted in Fukuoka’s port playing a vital role in trade to Asia and beyond throughout the centuries.

Takachiho Gorge is an incredibly stunning beauty and an absolute highlight during one of my Japan trips (read my Takachiho Gorge day trip itinerary for details). Over millennia the Gokase River has carved its way through towering volcanic basalt to create a scene that could easily be mistaken for Iceland!

Boasting incredible natural scenery from mountainous landscapes to sub-tropical islands in Kagoshima, stunning architecture of Kumamoto Castle and the dark past of port city Nagasaki, Kyushu holds numerous rewards for those who dare to venture off the beaten path in Japan.

TIP: Read my full 7 days in Kyushu itinerary (with option to extend to 10 days) which covers most of the places listed below. Additionally, my 2 Days in Nagasaki Itinerary: City of Million Dollar Views details of how to spend your time there, step back in time to Fukuoka’s hidden canal city on a Yanagawa day trip, plus my review of visiting Huis Ten Bosch and my itinerary for spending one day in Arita, the birthplace of Japanese porcelain!

 

Takachiho Gorge, Miyazaki | The Invisible Tourist

Rain Illumination at Huis Ten Bosch, Nagasaki

Tozan Shrine (Sueyama Shrine) in Arita Japan

Traditional Boat Ride in Yanagawa, Japan

Motonosumi Shrine in Kyushu off the beaten track in Japan
1) Takachiho Gorge ~ 2) Huis Ten Bosch ~ 3) Blue torii of Tozan Shrine, Arita ~ 4) Traditional boat rides in Yanagawa ~ 5) Motonosumi Shrine

Chūgoku Off the Beaten Path

The Chugoku region is a great area to stay the night to break up your journey between Osaka and Hiroshima. This region features some of my favourite Japan hidden gems that I’m sure you’ll love too.

Kurashiki 

Located only a 15 minute train ride away from Okayama city, Kurashiki 倉敷 can be described as another “Venice of Japan” often overlooked by foreign tourists.

If you’re a huge lover of art and culture, Kurashiki is a must to add to your Japan itinerary. Although it’s a small town, Kurashiki was the birthplace of denim in Japan and home to the very first museum dedicated to Western art.

Unexpectedly, the Ohara Museum of Art displays huge names such as Monet, Picasso and Pollock. With its willow-lined canals and traditional boats, I adore this almost secret place in Japan!

Kurashiki is an off the beaten path Japan destination overlooked by foreign visitors

Onomichi

Not one to be found in guidebooks, for an arty seaside town with lengthy history, cliffside temples and known for cats, gorgeous Onomichi ​​尾道 is for you!

It’s also a popular starting point with locals for the Shimanami Kaido cycling route.

My favourite part of my time in Onomichi was riding the Mountain Ropeway to take in stunning views over the Seto Inland Sea from the beautiful Senko-ji Temple. The Daruma ema are so cool!

Senko-ji Temple is one of the incredible hidden gems in Japan

Tottori

You would be forgiven for thinking the expansive Tottori sand dunes 鳥取砂丘 were right out of the Middle East, but luckily you don’t have to go that far.

During the winter months, the Tottori sand dunes, stretching 16 kilometres along the Sea of Japan, can be covered in snow which makes for an unusual sight. The wavy dunes are the prefecture’s top attraction, dating back over 100,000 years and some as tall as 50 metres high.

Recently, the dunes have begun to attract more foreign tourists. Despite “sand graffiti” being illegal here for over a decade, authorities are targeting visitors who etch their names into the sand for a photo. Please be respectful of this area’s history and don’t be THAT tourist.

Tottori sand dunes, Chugoku in Japan off the beaten path

Shikoku Off the Beaten Path

This area of the country is considered one of Japan’s most beautiful. The main island of Shikoku overlooks a cluster of isles prominent on the horizon of the Seto Inland Sea. Here, destinations such as Takamatsu, Naoshima Island and Iya Valley are perfect for getting off the beaten track in Japan.

Takamatsu

The port town of Takamatsu 高松 is a rising star in the Japan off the beaten path category. Prior to the creation of the Seto Ohashi Bridge that stretches from Kagawa prefecture to Okayama prefecture on the mainland, Takamatsu used to be the main entry point to Shikoku.

Just off the coast of Takamatsu is Megijima Island (not to be confused with Miyajima Island, although pictures do remind me of Miyajima a little).

In Japanese folklore, Megijima Island is also known as “Ogre Island” in the popular regional tale of Momotoro, the “Peach Boy,” as mentioned earlier in Kurashiki.

Takamatsu, Shikoku in Japan off the beaten path

Kazurabashi at Iya Valley in Miyoshi City, Tokushima in Japan off the beaten path

Get off the beaten track when planning a trip to Japan
TOP: Ritsurinko-en gardens in Takamatsu ~ MIDDLE: Incredible vine bridge in Iya Valley ~ BOTTOM: Spotted pumpkin on Naoshima, Japan’s “Art Island” 

Kansai Off the Beaten Path

Perhaps one of Japan’s most visited areas by international visitors, the Kansai region has plenty of lesser-travelled locations to discover.

Beyond the large cities of Osaka, Nara, Kyoto, Kobe and Himeji, there are a selection of hidden gems to explore.

You don’t need to wander far off the beaten path in Japan to discover alternatives to popular destinations!

TIP: My detailed guide to day trips from Osaka will help you explore more of the Kansai region.

Lake Biwa

As mentioned to my guide to day trips from Osaka, Japan’s largest freshwater body Lake Biwa 琵琶湖 almost brushes the Shiga border of neighbouring Kyoto and is a lovely alternative to popular Miyajima (Itsukushima) Island.

A similar Grand Torii gate floats on the lake’s surface, creating an almost identical image to its more famous sibling found in the country’s south. Hikone Castle is also worth a visit.

Wakayama

Within Wakayama prefecture 和歌山県, the Kii Peninsula area is recognised for its lush forests and ancient pilgrimage routes.

Known as the Kumano Kodo, an ancient network of trails and shrines trace across the peninsula and have attracted pilgrims from as far as Kyoto and Osaka for over 1,000 years. Here, Mt Koya (affectionately known as Koyasan) is the main attraction and headquarters of Shingon Buddhism.

Lake Biwa in Kansai off the beaten path

Wakayama in Japan off the beaten path
TOP: Torii of Lake Biwa ~ BOTTOM: Kumano Nachi Taisha Pagoda (credit: Pixabay)

Chūbu Off the Beaten Path

Gujo Hachiman

One of my absolute favourite hidden gems in Japan, Gujo Hachiman 郡上八幡 is known as Japan’s “Water City,” although I fondly call it “Kyoto Without The Crowds.”

With temple gardens to rival Kyoto, UNESCO World Heritage preserved streets and white “Castle in the Sky” perched on a hillside overlooking an emerald valley, Gujo Hachiman really is a must-see.

Producing 50% of Japan’s sampuru (replica food), it’s so much fun to hunt for unique Japanese souvenirs here!

Japan hidden gems: Gujo Hachiman

Jionzen-ji Temple is an absolutely gorgeous hidden gem in Japan, located in Gujo Hachiman

Nagano 

If you’re planning to be at one with nature in Japan, the alpine region of Nagano 長野 will be perfect for you. This is where you’ll find each of Japan’s 30 highest peaks (except Mt Fuji) so it’s no surprise the area is synonymous for snowy adventures.

Contrary to popular belief, the cheeky snow monkeys of Jigokudani Monkey Park are there year-round… even in summer! Visiting during the warmer months definitely has its perks (hint: fluffy snow monkey babies and fewer tourists).

Nagano in Japan off the beaten path

Magome, Kiso Valley in Japan off the beaten path
TOP: Snow monkeys in Jigokudani Monkey Park ~ MIDDLE: Chuo-dori in central Nagano ~ BOTTOM: Nakasendo Trail in the Kiso Valley

Matsumoto

If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you’re seeking more places to go in Japan off the beaten path. Lucky for you we’re only halfway through and I have more spots up my sleeve to share! Incredible Matsumoto 松本 is one such place. 

Matsumoto Castle (Matsumoto-jo) is one of four castles listed as National Treasures of Japan. Known colloquially as the “Black Crow” this must-see structure is actually Japan’s oldest original wooden castle, dating back to 1594!

The steep 60° angle of the staircases inside caused my head to spin and made me wonder how ninjas actually managed to hurl themselves up and down them.

TIP:If you’re petite like me (5’2”), you may find your legs not long enough to descend the old wooden stairs without shuffling down on your bottom!

Matsumoto Castle in Japan off the beaten path

Nakamachi-dori, Matsumoto in Japan off the beaten path
TOP & MIDDLE: Matsumoto Castle, the “Black Crow” ~ BOTTOM: Main shopping area of Nakamachi-dori

Takayama

According to statistics, only 6% of tourists to Japan visit Takayama 高山, but I believe it is another perfect Kyoto alternative! I absolutely LOVE it and can’t wait to return. 

In my opinion, Takayama is a delightful Japan off the beaten path destination, its enchanting townhouse-lined streets full of pleasant surprises such as Hida beef eateries, places to sample ALL the sake and paths to explore hidden temples.

TIP: Some breweries allow visitors to sample a dozen shots of sake for a few hundred yen. Each sake varies in flavour, aroma and amount the rice is polished. This system is based on goodwill so please don’t be that annoying tourist who goes overboard with the drinks and ruins this experience for everyone.

While many tourists day trip to Shirakawa-go 白川郷 from Takayama, I don’t recommend this as the UNESCO site is falling victim to overtourism. Tourists have been known to wait in line for two hours to get photos of the town from an elevated vantage point!

If you’re intrigued by the idea of Shirakawa-go without the crowds, I’ve written about my visit to Hida No Sato Folk Village, the perfect alternative complete with beautiful scenery and grassho-thatched farmhouses.

TIP:Nearby Gero Onsen is a must if you want to literally soak up the local culture in a traditional Japanese hot spring town, too! Read my detailed itinerary to Gero Onsen here.

Hydrangeas at Hida No Sato in Summer

Old Town, Takayama in Japan off the beaten path
TOP: Gassho-thatched farmhouse of Hida No Sato ~ BOTTOM: Historical Sanmachi-suji district

Fujinomiya

Have you heard of the “Unseen side of Mt Fuji?” Once the main gateway to climbing Mt Fuji’s summit by pilgrims from Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, Fujinomiya 富士宮 is now often overlooked by foreign visitors to Japan. And it shouldn’t be!

In the middle of Tokyo and Kyoto, Fujinomiya can be reached by bullet train and is home to numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, stunning natural scenery, delicious local specialties, a community feel and much more.

There are so many things to do in Fujinomiya over a weekend, and the best part is you can enjoy some of the best Mt Fuji views in the entire country WITHOUT the crowds.

I mean, just look at the sunrise view from my hotel room below!

Mt Fuji Sunrise, Fujinomiya, Japan

The Mt Fuji World Heritage Centre is one of the best things to do in Fujinomiya

Visiting Shiraito Falls is one of the best things to do in Fujinomiya
TOP: Mt Fuji sunrise from my hotel room ~ MIDDLE: Mt Fuji World Heritage Centre ~ BOTTOM: Shiraito Falls

Kanazawa

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk in the footsteps on samurais? Have a peek in their homes and see the beauty they surrounded themselves with? You’ll be able to in Kanazawa 金沢! Find out exactly how with my 2 day Kanazawa itinerary.

Dubbed as “Little Kyoto”, Kanazawa shines with traditional pride in its well-preserved Nagamachi district. Aged brown townhouses line the streets of Japan’s other active geisha city after Kyoto.

If you’re incredibly lucky you may be able to spot one during your visit or even dress up as one yourself. If not, it’s easy to imagine these ladies gracing the streets and samurais going about their daily lives.

One of Japan’s top gardens, Kenroku-en is here in Kanazawa. I thoroughly enjoyed strolling around these grounds with such different varieties of landscapes around every corner!

Every spot is a little photo opportunity with ponds, bridges, cherry blossoms, mosses, autumn colours… Stunning in every season. Kenroku-en used to be part of Kanazawa Castle‘s outer gardens and Japan’s oldest water fountain is located inside.

TIP: Kanazawa is also famed for its gold leaf. It’s said the 20 tonnes of gold leaf used to cover Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto came from this city. Even the Kanji name for Kanazawa has the symbol for gold in it (金)! Why not pick up a small souvenir featuring gold leaf during your trip?

Nagamachi District, Kanazawa in Japan off the beaten path

Nomura Clan Private Residence, Kanazawa in Japan off the beaten track

Niigata 

Niigata 新潟市 is known for its stunning fall foliage, making it a nice alternative to popular Nikko. Off the coast of Niigata lies Sado Island with a fascinating history.

Once used as an island for political exiles, today you can visit the former gold mines, enjoy the tranquil scenery of Senkaku Bay, or learn more about the once-endangered toki bird at Toki Forest Park.

As the producer of some of the country’s finest sake (sa-keh), you can’t leave Niigata without trying some!

Views from Bell of Love Observation Deck, Gala Yuzawa
 
Ponshukan Sake Vending Machine Wall in Echigo Yuzawa, Niiagata
 
Niigata off the beaten track in Japan | The Invisible Tourist
1) Bell of Love Observation Deck, Gala Yuzawa ~ 2) Sake Vending Machine Wall, Echigo Yuzawa 3) Maekura Bridge

Tōhoku Off the Beaten Path

Aomori

As we reach the northernmost point of Japan’s main island of Honshu, we hit the lovely unchartered area of Aomori. Aomori city 青森 would be an ideal place to escape the crowds of international visitors to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka if you’re visiting towards the end of April during the cherry blossom season!

Iconic Hirosaki Castle is surrounded by over 50 varieties of cherry blossoms, framing the structure in a flurry of delicate pink hues. Doesn’t paddling a small boat beneath in the moat beneath these blossoms sound dreamy? The perfect Japan off the beaten path experience.

You’ll also be treated to a seemingly endless street of cherry trees along the “World’s Longest Cherry-Lined Road”, boasting 6,500 cherry trees and stretching for 20 kilometres! An incredible of snow-capped Mt Iwaki rewards visitors who stroll along this southern road during spring.

Hirosaki Castle in Japan Off the Beaten Path

Hokkaido Off the Beaten Path

I’m yet to visit Japan’s second-largest island, but there are plenty of reasons why I want to! As well as the famed Sapporo Snow Festival, mountainous Hokkaido 北海道 seems to be a hiker’s paradise with an assortment of wildlife to be spotted throughout the region.

Brown bears and deer forage through the lush wilderness while beautiful red-crowned cranes dance in the snow to attract a mate. 

Hokkaido is home to six national parks than span from the forests to the sea, the largest being Daisetsuzan National Park. With so much variety in scenery, Hokkaido has delightful treasures to be found around every corner. 

 

Red-crowned cranes, Hokkaido in Japan off the beaten path

Concluding places to visit in Japan off the beaten track

It could be argued that the stunning areas of Nikko and Hakone should be included in this guide, but I decided against it. Even though Nikko and Hakone are technically off the beaten path, they still manage to be quite popular spots for fall foliage and crowds. Exactly what we are trying to avoid!

What did you think of these lesser-known Japan tourist attractions? I wanted to share some cities along Japan’s “New Golden Route” as the original Golden Route is becoming overworn with tourist love. Plus I’m a big believer that it’s always rewarding stepping outside your comfort zone. There is so much stunning natural beauty, rich history and beautiful culture to be found in all regions of Japan, not just the most popular tourist spots.

Now you know where to head in Japan off the beaten path with my comprehensive guide, what’s stopping you from adding a few of these locations to your trip? Let me know in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this article, I’ve written about many more off the beaten path destinations and hidden gems on my Japan travel blog to inspire you and help with your Japan trip planning, so go take a look.

Want to learn my strategies for how to “blend in” anywhere around the globe? Find out by reading my #1 Amazon New Release Book!

If you found this helpful please share it with your friends or save it for later reference. I’d also love if you could join me on Facebook, my Japan Off The Beaten Path Travel Community on Facebook, PinterestInstagram and TikTok for more Japan inspiration!

Until next time,

The Invisible Tourist


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Stunning Places to Discover in Japan Off the Beaten Path | The Invisible Tourist

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22 Comments

    1. I’m sorry, Cookie!
      I haven’t been to the Tohoku region as yet so my knowledge is quite limited unfortunately.
      But I’ll get there someday and will update my findings here for sure!

  1. Hello Alyse,

    What a great website! We are traveling in August with our 3 teenagers to Japan for 26 days. I still have to plan the whole trip so some tips would be welcome. We love nature, culture and the Japanese lifestyle. We like to travel off the beaten tracks.
    I doubt between public transport or renting a car or a combination of the two. Further more it’s not the best season to visit all regions. Would you have a recommendation for us on transport , regions for that period?

    1. Hi Inge, thanks for reading!
      Most of the places in this guide are ideal to reach with public transport. The exception to this is places in Kyushu not on the train line and the Japanese Alps areas (Gujo Hachiman, Takayama, Nagano) where it can be ideal to hire a car to save travel time.
      I’d recommend looking at the places you wish to visit in Kyushu and the Alps, and compare the travel times between each by car and train. The car will be more convenient in those areas, and the bullet trains for almost everything else.
      I hope that helps and you have an amazing time in Japan!

  2. Wow what a list, thank you for all work you’ve done on this blog.

    I want to visit all the places here 😁😁

    It’s going to be really hard to narrow down our 26 days itinerary, I really love to go of the beaten track,my husband wants to visit the common places to go Tokyo – Kyoto – Mt Fufi and the WW2 bomb site – I have of planning thinking of how we can see some of the above you have mentioned

  3. I’m new to your page and wanted to thank you for the incredibly detailed information. I’m going Japan for 3 weeks in October and we’re keen to discover the lesser visited spots and minimise our footprint so this article especially has been super helpful. I really like the sound of Kurashiki and the ‘unseen’ side of Fujisan. We’re hoping to do a multi-day hike of the Kumano Kodo. Thank you again and I look forward to browsing more of your articles.

    1. Thank you for your kind comments, Joya! I’m so happy to have you here, thank you for following along 😃
      Kurashiki is an absolutely joy to visit, and Fujinomiya is a perfect place to see some of the country’s best views of Mt Fuji without the crowds.
      I hope you have a wonderful time in Japan!

      1. Hey, hope you are well.
        We are looking at a short 7 day trip end of June (land and depart Osaka). We are all for the unknown and non tourist options. We thinking of exploring Osaka for 3 days … what area would you recommend for a 4 day road trip? Chugoku area or Kyushu or Honshu?

        1. Hi Colin,
          Osaka is quite touristy these days, so if you are looking for the unknown and non-tourist options there, my Osaka itinerary covers a few spots (as well as the popular places).
          But if you would rather avoid the big city vibes altogether in a week, I definitely recommend Kyushu or Chubu Regions instead of Chugoku.
          Honshu is the largest and main island of Japan, made up of Tokohu, Kanto, Chubu, Kansai and Chugoku Regions.
          Chubu is much less explored by foreign tourists compared to Chugoku. I hope that helps!

          Regions of Japan Map

  4. Great post… I’m heading to Kanazawa and then Kyushu in May. I feel like Kagoshima should be on this list. Cheers!

    1. I absolutely agree about Kagoshima, gt! Hoping I can make it there myself someday 🙂
      Enjoy your trip and enjoy all that wagyu for me!

  5. Thank you so much for your wonderful and thoughtful article. My 12 year old son and I are considering a trip in Mid-March. Would you be willing to share what your itinerary would be with 10 days? It will be his first trip and my second, I haven’t been since 2008.

    Thanks again!!

    Carlisle

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Carlisle!
      How exciting you’re able to head back again after so long and take your son along too.
      An itinerary would depend on your interests and things you and your son would like to see.
      Are you hoping to see some kind of spring blossoms, what things would your son like to experience?
      Do you like the traditional side of things, more modern aspects, or both? What kinds of foods would you like to try?
      Are there any destinations from this article you’d like to include?
      To help get you started, my article on Japan cultural experiences should be able to help you out.
      The answer is different for everyone, so feel free to tell me a few interests and we can go from there 😃
      Thanks for your comment!

  6. Just wanted to say how valuable I am finding your advice and blog as I organise a 3 week trip to Japan in April/May 2023. Being a humble and quiet tourist is my goal and I like the way you think about things and write. Thanks for your unique perspective – very helpful.

    1. That is so kind of you to say, thank you Kim!
      Comments such as yours from like-minded travellers mean so much 😊
      I hope you have a wonderful time in Japan and are able to chase some cherry blossoms!

  7. Saved for my next trip to Japan! I LOVED Matsumoto (the castle was wonderful, and the town had the most interesting shops), Kanazawa (so much to do, and my favorite train station in all of Japan) and Naoshima (where I enjoyed the art and stayed overnight, sampling the beaches and the onsen and watching children taiko drumming in the temple). I wish I’d had more time in Takayama, but only enough to do the Alpine Route.

    1. I’m so happy to hear you’ve saved this for your next Japan trip, Alli!
      Thank you so much for your comment and I hope you get to spend some more time in the Alps once you’re able to revisit 😃

  8. Thanks so much much for your post. Japan is my favourite country to travel to, finding lots of inspiration for my fourth trip. Definitely better to get off the beaten path for sure!

    1. I’m so glad to hear this post inspired you, Mary! Wow your fourth trip sounds very exciting – happy planning and thanks so much for your comment 🙂

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