Todaiji guardian
NARA (30 minutes by train from Osaka and Kyoto) was once the capital of Japan and is even older than Kyoto. When Nara was at its peak, 1,200 years ago, it was spread out over a much larger area than it is today. Many of the magnificent palaces and temples have disappeared, but some structures remain in their original scenic surroundings and are wonderfully preserved as museums.

Nara is regarded as the birthplace of Japan's spiritual traditions and was the capital of the earliest known Japanese dynasty. Founded in the year 710, it contains some of the oldest and most famous art treasures in the country, including the Great Buddha of the Todaiji Temple, housed in the world's largest wooden building, and Horyuji Temple, the world’s oldest wooden structure. Five-story Kofuku-ji pagoda is one of many beautiful Buddhist temples that can be visited. Hundreds of tame deer roam freely and beg to be fed at Nara Park. In 1998, eight Nara sights were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple, Kasuga Taisha Shrine, the virgin Kasusayama Forest, Gangoji Temple, Yakushiji Temple, Toshodaiji Temple and the Heijokyu ruins. area. Todaiji Temple, Kofukuji Temple and Kasuga Taisha Shrine are in 502-hectare Nara Park.

Separated from Osaka and Kyoto by hills and mountains running north to west and then south, Modern Nara is a typical small Japanese city with about 350,000 people. The nice thing about Nara, compared to Kyoto, is that the main places of interest are fairly concentrated and can easily be reached by train and explored on foot and have some distance between them and urban Nara. In the rural areas outside of Nara city are a number of ancient tombs, ruins and other historical relics. Many of these can be reached by train from Nara Station.

Nara Prefecture covers 3,691 square kilometers (1,425 square miles), is home to about 1.4 million people and has a population density of 370 people per square kilometer. Nara is the capital and largest city, with about 360,000 people. It is in the Kansai area near Osaka and Kyoto on the central part of Honshu island and has seven districts and 39 municipalities.

Nara Tourist Information Offices: Nara City Tourist Information Center is located near JR Nara Station and Kintensu-Nara Station. This office has a friendly, helpful staff and lots of brochures, guides and maps to give away. They can also arrange free guided tours in English and other languages. Address: 1082 Sanjo-honmachi, Nara 1082, Tel: 0742-27-2223. narashikanko.or ; Nara City Tourist Information Center and Inn, Nankai Information Center 3 Ikeno-cho, Nara City, Nara Pref. Tel. 0742-81-7461, Hours Open: 8:00am-9:00pm, Tourist offices in Kyoto and Osaka can also supply you with information about Nara.

Websites: Nara Tourism site: ;Nara City site ; Nara Prefecture site Map: PDF map Hotel Websites: Nara Prefecture site ; Nara City site ; Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Nara is accessible by air via Kansai or Osaka airports. It is not on the main shinkansen line. The closets shinkansen station is about 20 minutes away in Kyoto. 1) From Kansai International Airport: By JR train: 35 minutes by Limited Express “Haruka” to Tennoji Station and 35 minutes by a rapid train to JR Nara Station; 2) By other train: 35 minutes by Nankai Limited Express “Rapi:t” to Namba Station and 35 minutes by Kintetsu rapid express train to Kintetsu-Nara Station.; 3) From Kyoto: 45 minutes by JR rapid train to JR Nara Station or 45 minutes by Kintetsu express train to Kintetsu-Nara Station. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

History of Nara

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan. Before it was created, , the capital had moved to the palace of whichever emperor was reigning. But from 710 to 784 — with another 10 years at nearby Nagaokakyo — Nara was a large metropolis of palaces, temples, shrines and dwellings. The arts, crafts and industry were encouraged and flourished to an exceptional degree, and the awesome results can still be seen today. The Nara period also realized the firm establishment of Buddhism alongside the indigenous Shinto religion, to the cultural enrichment of both.

Nara era clothes
Modeled after the Chinese capital of Chang'an (Xian,) Nara was the source of Japan's earliest art and literature and the locale for many early Japanese historical events and myths. Buddhism first flourished here and became such as strong political force, the emperors felt threatened and moved the capital to Kyoto. Of the eight empresses that have ruled Japan, six reigned during the Nara period.

The Nara Period (A.D. 710-794) began with the completion of initial construction of Heijo (Nara), Japan's first true capital and first true city, in 710. Before Nara was made the capital the capital was changed with each new emperor so that he would not jinxed by the death of his predecessor. In 710, when the capital of Japan was moved 18.4 kilometer from Fujiwara-kyo to present-day Nara city, a unprecedented construction boom ensued. The temples Yakushji, Asuakdera (now Gangoji) and Daikandaiji (now Daianji) were moved to the new sites and Kofukiji was built by Fujiwara Fuhito, the nobleman who orchestrated the move to Nara.

The Imperial family resided in Heijo and gradually extended their authority over the country. Early governments at Nara, and later Kyoto, were modeled after the Chinese imperial government, with a civil service system, and a court and nobles underneath the emperor. Initially Buddhism was promoted, especially by Emperor Shomu, who ordered the construction of Todaiji Temple and Daibutsi (Great Buddha) in Nara, and issued a decree for the construction of state Buddhist temples in each province.

Emperor Shomu was deeply religious. He believed that he could overcome the epidemics and unrest that occurred during his reign with the power of The Buddha. Buddhists monks played a prominent role in the imperial administration. They served as engineers helping to build roads, bridges and irrigation systems and worked as clerks and scribes. They instructed people to build reservoirs as a countermeasure against famine and advised people how to build houses and gave advice on medicines. In return the imperial court helped Buddhism spread to provinces by decreeing that each should establish a monastery for at least 20 monks. The Kegon (Huayen in Chinese) sect was the dominant sect.

About 100,000 people are thought to have lived in Nara, with the royal family and nobles numbering about 100. The grounds of the one-kilometer-square Heijo Palace was located in the north. It was encircled by a roofed earthen wall. Inside were the Imperial domiciles, business quarters, gardens and other areas. Some of the buildings were built in a Chinese style. Nara city itself was modeled after Changan (Xian), the capital of Tang Dynasty China. The city was divided into western capital and eastern capital, which together measured 4.9 kilometers from north to south and 4.3 kilometers from east to west. Geyoko, an extension of the eastern side of the eastern capital was 2.1 kilometers from north to south and 1.6 kilometers from east to west.

The Nara period was a golden age for Japanese sculpture. Masterpiece from this period include the Yakushi Triad, which can be viewed at Yakushi Temple in southern Nara and the Ganjin statue at Nara's Toshodaiji Temple. Outstanding religious cave murals were also produced in these period.The Nara period ended when the Emperor moved the capital to several location and finally Kyoto to diffuse the power of the Buddhist elite. The Japanese imperial family viewed the sometimes meddlesome Buddhist clergy as a threat. Heijo-kyo (Nara) was Japan’s first full fledged capital. To celebrate the 1,300 anniversary of Nara in 2010 Heijo Palace was rebuilt.


Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara: UNESCO World Heritage Site

The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. The site is made up of six temples and shrines: 1) Todaiji Temple, 2) Kasuga Taisha Shrine, 3) Kofukuji Temple, 4) Yakushiji Temple, 5) Toshodaiji Temple and 6) Gangoji Temple as well as the former imperial palace and Kasugayama Primeval Forest.

According to UNESCO: “Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784. During this period the framework of national government was consolidated and Nara enjoyed great prosperity, emerging as the fountainhead of Japanese culture. The city's historic monuments – Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and the excavated remains of the great Imperial Palace – provide a vivid picture of life in the Japanese capital in the 8th century, a period of profound political and cultural change. [Source: UNESCO]

”The Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara bear exceptional witness to the evolution of Japanese architecture and art and vividly illustrate a critical period in the cultural and political development of Japan, when Nara functioned as its capital from 710 to 784. During this period, the framework of national government was consolidated and Nara enjoyed great prosperity, emerging as the fountainhead of Japanese culture.

”Located in the modern city of Nara, the property includes eight component parts composed of seventy-eight different buildings covering 617.0 ha, which is surrounded by a buffer zone (1,962.5 ha) and the “historic environment harmonization area (539.0 ha) ”. The site of Heijô-kyô was carefully selected in accordance with Chinese geomantic principles. A grand city plan, based on Chinese examples such as Chang'an, was laid out, with palaces, Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, public buildings, houses, and roads on an orthogonal grid. The palace itself, located at the northern end of the central avenue, occupied 120 ha. It comprised the official buildings where political and religious ceremonies took place, notably the Daigokuden (imperial audience hall) and Chôdô-in (state halls), and the imperial residence (Dairi), together with various compounds for administrative and other purposes.

”The component parts include an archaeological site (the Nara Palace Site), five Buddhist temples (the Tôdai-ji, the Kôfuku-ji, the Yakushi-ji, the Gangô-ji and the Tôshôdai-ji), a Shinto shrine (the Kasuga-Taisha) and an associative cultural landscape (the Kasugayama Primeval Forest), the natural environment which is an integral part of all Shinto shrines. Together, these places provide a vivid and comprehensive picture of religion and life in the Japanese capital in the 8th century, a period of profound political and cultural change.”

The site is important, according to UNESCO, because: 1) The historic monuments of Ancient Nara bear exceptional witness to the evolution of Japanese architecture and art as a result of cultural links with China and Korea which were to have a profound influence on future developments. 2) The flowering of Japanese culture during the period when Nara was the capital is uniquely demonstrated by its architectural heritage. 3) The layout of the Imperial Palace and the design of the surviving monuments in Nara are outstanding examples of the architecture and planning of early Asian capital cities. 4) The Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines of Nara demonstrate the continuing spiritual power and influence of these religions in an exceptional manner.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara Conservation

According to UNESCO: “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara include the group of buildings of the Buddhist temples representing this historic city, the harmonious cultural landscape of the sacred forest and the Shinto shrine, demonstrating traditional worship in Japan, and an archaeological site. These essential component parts of the property illustrate Japanese political structure and cultural tradition in the 8th century. Each component part has an adequate buffer zone, and thus the integrity of the property is ensured in the contexts of both wholeness and intactness. [Source: UNESCO]

”Since the World Heritage Committee expressed concern in 2003 about the negative impact on the buried cultural resources at Nara Palace Site caused by changing groundwater levels due to the Yamato-Kita Road highway construction, government intervention and monitoring has been ongoing. The State Party is currently addressing the visual impact of the planned new visitor facilities at Nara Palace site.

”Restoration work on the buildings of ancient Nara began in the late 19th century after the enactment of the Ancient Shrines and Temples Preservation Law (1897). The Kasuga-Taisha Shinto shrine has maintained its tradition of routine reconstruction. The level of authenticity of the various buildings on the property is high from the view of form and design, materials and substance, traditions and techniques, and location and setting. Japanese conservation principles have ensured that replacement of damaged or degraded architectural elements has respected the materials and techniques used by the original builders. The archaeological site of the Nara Palace Site, protected for a long period under cultivated rice fields, has also a high level of authenticity in form, materials and substance, and location and setting. Unearthed archaeological remains have been reburied for protection.

”There has been some reconstruction of the gate, the study hall, and the garden at the Nara Palace Site. The continuity of traditional architecture in Japan and the substantial amount of data recovered by archaeological excavation has ensured that the reconstructed buildings have a high level of authenticity in form and design. The State Party is currently addressing how to best maintain that continuity in ongoing reconstruction work emphasizing the need for a clear rationale and justification for all interventions. The Kasugayama Primeval Forest has been preserved as a sacred forest where no hunting or tree-felling has been permitted since 841. Thus it retains a high level of authenticity in location and setting, and spirit and feeling.

”All the component parts are designated as National Treasures, a Special Natural Monument, a Special Site, and etc. under the 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties. The places of worship (the Buddhist temples and the Shinto shrine) are owned by their respective religious communities, and the state of conservation is strong. Nara Prefecture has the responsibility of managing and protecting the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, and the Nara Palace Site has been maintained in collaboration with the Japanese government and Nara Prefecture. In particular, the Nara Palace Site and its buffer zone have been parts of a National Government Park since 2008, and maintenance projects are continuously planed with the aim of appropriately protecting and utilizing the archaeological site.

”There are clearly defined and adequate buffer zones around all the component parts. These are provided for in the 1950 Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, the Ancient Capitals Preservation Act, and various prefectural and municipal regulations. There is no overall conservation and management plan for the property as a whole, although each component part is the object of a conservation and maintenance survey program that includes restoration activities. To ensure the long-term conservation and protection, management and conservation policies will need to be developed.

Museums in Nara

Nara National Museum (in Nara Park) specializes in Buddhist art and has a great series of paintings that show the punishments in Buddhist hell. In addition to the regular exhibit of Buddhist relics such as sculptures, paintings, applied arts, calligraphy and archeological objects there is a special exhibition in May. The priceless collection of art objects in Shosoin is shown at the Nara National Museum for two weeks from late October to early November. Website: Nara National Museum site

Nara National Museum houses a remarkable collection of Buddhist art. Besides items owned by the museum itself are important objects entrusted to the museum for safekeeping by various temples and shrines throughout the country, and in particular those in the Kansai area. The Western-style structure of the “Nara Buddhist Sculpture Hall” is representative of the Meiji Era. The new wing, designed by Junzo Yoshimura in 1972, houses one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in Japan. The museum frequently changes its permanent exhibition display of statues, sculptures, and scrolls, and offers the opportunity for Buddhist art lovers to return frequently to its galleries. Location: 50 Noborioji-cho, Nara-shi, Nara 630-8213 +81-50-5542-8600. Hours Open: Open 9:30am to 5:00pm Closed on Monday and January 1.

Neiraku Art Museum specializes in Chinese bronzes and Korean bronzes and ceramics. You can eat lunch at a restaurant near the museum that overlooks the garden. Isuien Garden (near the Neiraku Art Museum in Nara Park) has been designated a national scenic area. Covering 13,481 square meters, it is a unique combination of two promenade-style gardens with distinctly different characteristics. The landscape garden makes use of views of Wakakusa-yama Hill and Mt. Kasugain the background. Yamato Bunkakan Museum is located a beautiful, natural setting. It was designed to synthesize a modern museum with traditional Japanese architectural concepts. Many treasures of international importance from throughout East Asia are on display. Open 10:00am to.5:00pm Closed Monday

Nara Walk

Nara Park is within walking distance of both JR Nara Station and Kintetsu Nara Station. It's the perfect place for a relaxing stroll and to discover the heart of Japanese culture with its countless shrines, temples and museums, which take you back through the history of this ancient capital. [Source: JNTO]

You start your walk in the grounds of Kofukuji Temple. The five-story pagoda stands tall over the temple grounds, providing a perfect backdrop for your photographs of the tranquil Sarusawaike Pond. As you continue up into the vast Nara Park, deer happily grazing wander up to you begging for Deer Cracker (Shikasenbei) as you continue on up to the Great Buddha of Todaiji Temple. The huge statue stares down at you in the smoky hall, as all around you people throw coins into the huge boxes placed below the Buddha's giant feet and join their hands in prayer. You feel as if you've traveled back centuries.

Before you wind your way down to admire the priceless Buddhist treasures of Nara National Museum, you stop by Nigatsudo Hall, famous for its Water Drawing Ceremony in March when all the temple is ablaze with the flames of roaring torches carried ceremoniously by the monks. Not far away is the colorful and grand Kasuga Taisha Shrine, where February and August the thousands of stone lanterns on the approach to the shrine are lit in one of Nara's most famous festivals. Other popular festivals in Nara include the great Grass Burning Festival on Wakakusayama Hill in January and the Deer Antler Cutting ceremony held in Deer enclosure in October.

Nara-machi Area: Old Houses and Cats

Nara-machi (near Kintetsu Nara Station, south of Sarusawanoike Pond and west of Gangoji Temple) preserves aesthetic Japanese structures such as Imanishike Shoin Residence dating back to the 16th to 18th centuries. This area is ideal for exploring the aesthetic of traditional Japanese architecture and its historical background; ink and sake merchants’ houses; several small museums portraying daily life and traditional crafts; and Nara’s history of commercial trade with other Asian countries.

Nara-machi is also famous for cats. The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Naramachi, an old district here known for preserving the traditional streetscape of the Edo period (1603-1867), offers another attraction — a “cat sanctuary.” The name holds meaning for cats and cat lovers alike. Many cats in Naramachi of Nara have been domesticated by local residents aiming to protect strays. The district also contains many shops dealing in cat-themed merchandise. Some people refer to it affectionately as “nyara-machi” — “nyara” combining Nara and nya (meow), an onomatopoeia for the sound a cat makes — while “machi” means town. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2014]

The district became famous in 2000, when photographer Mitsuaki Iwago published a photo collection featuring cats lounging in the district’s back alleys. Recently, the 10 seats at a local cafe were occupied by visitors from other prefectures in the region. The cafe keeps 20 house cats. “Come here, sweetie,” visitors were saying as they tried to attract the cats with a bunch of green foxtails in hand.

“Housed in a remodelled traditional machiya townhouse, the cafe is named Neko-an. “Neko” means cat in Japanese. One of the cats climbed onto a table and sat with its front paws crossed. Another watched the customers as it sat on a beam of the building. Although the cats remained aloof, the visitors looked happy. Neko-an’s 53-year-old female owner said, “I’m happy to have so many customers during the rainy season, since there are usually so few.” Customers are also welcomed by cats at three other establishments — an eatery and cafe that is home to 11 cats, a traditional Japanese confectioner where a calico cat serves as a shopkeeper, and a coffee shop whose president is a black cat.

“Early in the mornings and evenings, house cats that emerge from their houses and other cats taken care of by local residents are seen cleaning their faces with their front paws. Some others are found yawning in back alleys and on the outer walls of local temples and shrines. The idea of revitalising the district using cats was devised about a decade ago by a local restaurant operator, who heard a friend joking around and calling the district “nyara-machi.” In 2005, the operator invited artist friends to hold photo and art exhibitions with a cat theme. By 2011, the event had developed into Nyara-machi Neko Matsuri, a festival that features exhibitions and sales of cat-themed goods from local shops. The annual festival was held in June this year, with the participation of 51 shops. Visitors enjoyed shopping for feline-themed goods and sweets, as well as making illustration books and attending the pottery-making workshop. More than 20,000 people attended the event.

“Local supporters have been looking for people who can help take care of the dozens of stray cats caught in the district. They also pay the cost of their surgical sterilisation. Some cat lovers were disappointed when the district’s stray cat population declined as a result of local efforts, but they now look forward to finding house cats coming into back alleys. Masumi Yoshida, the vice director of the Pet Law Association and former vice president of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, said: “Using cats to revitalise the district is an interesting idea, since there are so many cat lovers. This event lets cat lovers come in contact with cats indoors as much as they like and enjoy walking outdoors feeling the presence of cats. The project is also laudable, as it isn’t being pushed at people who don’t like animals.”

Nara Temples and Shrines Outside Nara Park

Temples and Shrines in Nara outside of Nara Park include Byakugoji Temple, Gangoji Temple, Hannyaju Temple, Jurin-in Temple, Akishinodera Temple, Dainanji Temple, Ryosenji Temple, and Saidajii Temple. In 1998, Gangoji Temple, Kasugayma Primal Forest and Heijokyo Palace Ruins were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Toshodaiji Temple (about 8 kilometers west of Nara Park) is one the oldest surviving Buddhist structures in Japan. It was founded in 759 by the famous Tang Dynasty Chinese monk Jianzhen, who was known as Ganjin in Japan. The Ganjin statue at Toshodaiji Temple is regarded as a masterpiece from the golden age of Japanese sculpture.

Toshodaiji Temple is regarded as one of the best proportioned temples in Japan. Ganjin was a blind priest who arrived in Japan after many tribulations. The gilded dry-lacquer statues of Buddha Vairocana and the thousand-armed Kannon are both National Treasures. The Lecture Hall, originally the Assembly Hall of the Nara Court, is a fine example of Nara period architecture. The Miroku Bosatsu statue enshrined inside is an Important Cultural Property. In 1998, Toshodaiji Temple, was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A $32 million restoration of Kondo Hall and other buildings at Toshodaiji was completed in October 2009. The 1,200-year-old main hall was last repaired in 1898. Website: Japan Guide UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website

Heijo Palace Site measures 1.3 kilometers from east to west and one kilometer from north to south. Heijo Palace Site was the ancient capital of Japan in the 8th century. Its main building, the "Daigokuden" where national ceremonies for welcoming foreign delegates were held was reconstructed in time to celebrate the 1300th anniversary of the Heijo-kyo Capital in 2010. Much of the site is open grassy space, used by people to relax and walk their dogs.

Gangoji began when Asukadera, the first true Buddhist Temple built in Japan, was moved to Nara by Soga no Umako (died 636), a leading figure in the Yamamoto Court. Gokurakubo Hall at Gangoji Temple is a national treasure. Some of the construction materials, including the roof tiles, date back to the Nara period. It receives few visitors and is a quiet place. Yamato Koriyama (south of Nara) have been major center of goldfish cultivation for almost 300 years, About 80 million goldfish are raised here each year and shipped out all over Japan. The city host an annual Goldfish Convention and Goldfish Dipping Contest.

Yakushiji Temple

Yakushiji Temple (near Toshodaiji Temple) is admired for its pagodas. The East Tower is a unique a 110-foot-high structure. It appears to have six levels but in reality only has three. It has retained it original form since the late 7th century. The Saito, or the West Tower, was lost to fire in the 16th century; its reconstruction was completed in April 1981.

Yakushiji was built, according to legend, in 680 under the orders of Tenmu to help cure his ailing wife. The temple was moved to its present location in 718. Many of the early buildings that were lost had Chinese Tang dynasty influences. Many things in the temple are dedicated to the great Chinese monk-explorer Xuan Zang (600-664). Some of his remains taken by Japanese soldiers from Majing, China in 1942 are kept in the temple.

Yakushiji Temple is another symbol of Nara. Founded in 697, the renowned 7-8th century Yakushi-triad in the main hall has rare Hellenic details on the base. The exquisite three-storied East Pagoda built in 730 gives an illusion of being six-storied, and is thought by many to be the most graceful structure in Japan. The east pagoda was under repair and reopened to the public in 2020.

In 1998, Yakushiji Temple was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The East hall contains the famous Sho-Kannon image. The Yakushi Triad, the Buddha Takushi flanked by Bodhisattvas of the sun and moon, dates from the 8th century and is regarded as a masterpiece from the Golden Age for Japanese sculpture. It is in the Kondo (main) hall. The two Bodhisattvas stand 3.2 meter tall, excluding their pedestals and weigh over two tons each. They are cast from bronze and have amazingly smooth finishes and twist at the waist, a sign of Indian influences. The 34-meter-tall east pagoda at Yakushiji in Nara began large-scale rennovation 2011. Websites: Photos ; UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Japan Guide

Ganko-Ittetsu Nagaya (Tenement House) (near Yakushiji Temple) features six craftsmen exceptionally skilled in such traditional crafts as wood carving, lacquering and bamboo tea whisk making. The Sumi Information Center exhibits the history, artwork and materials of sumi, or calligraphy ink, and permits you to make your own ink sticks. Open 10:00am to 5:00pm Closed Mon, August 1 to 31 and December 29 to January 5.

Image Sources: 1) 6) 7) 8) Ray Kinnane 2) MIT Education 3) JNTO Map 4) 9) 10) 11) 12) Nara City site 5) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization),, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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