A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

shisoleaves300.jpg

I am finally getting around to sowing some seeds for the vegetable garden. I really should have sown some things earlier, but I figure it’s not too late yet.

If you are planning a vegetable garden, or even a few pots on your windowsill, and want to introduce some Japanese flavors, here’s a list of some herbs and vegetables to consider growing, in order of importance and ease of growing in a temperate climate. (That’s one with real winters…at least, before global warming.) The ones marked with an *asterisk can be grown in pots. A couple of my favorite seed sources are listed at the bottom.

*1. Shiso or perilla

If you can only grow one Japanese vegetable or herb, it should be shiso, or perilla (perilla fructescens). I’ve also seen it labeled “beefsteak plant”, for what reason I know not. Shiso is used at all stages of growth. The seedlings are clipped and used as mejiso, as a fragrant garnish. The fully grown leaves, called oh-ba (big leaves), are used whole or shredded, as wrappings or garnish, as well as in pickles. And the flower buds, called hojiso, are salted and pickled. Onigiri wrapped in salted green shisos leaves are to die for.

The green shiso is the most useful one - the red shiso is usually just used for making umeboshi (pickled plums), and for hojiso. If you have the space growing both is great, but you’ll need more green than red.

Since shiso leaves bruise rather easily, they are pretty expensive even if you can buy them. So, they are really worth growing yourself.

If you are lucky, shiso will self-seed itself. They did for me, but someone else mistook them for stinging nettles and pulled them all up! So, I’m sewing some anew this year.

You might find this in the ornamental seeds section,since the leaves are very attractive.

In terms of growing habits and conditions, it’s quite similar to basil, so if you can grow basil you can probably grow shiso successfully. To keep the plants going keep plucking off any new buds until the weather turns cool, then let them form buds which you can cut off and preserve in salt. The only problem with shiso is that the leaves can get chewed up or get little holes drilled into them by various insects. Otherwise they are quite problem free. They do require lots of sun.

*2. Mitsuba

This is another herb that adds a really Japanese flavor to dishes. It’s primarily used as a garnish, so you just need a little.

There are two kinds of mitsuba sold, but they are the same plant: regular mitsuba, and the kind with long, blanched stems. The latter kind is a pain to grow for the home gardener, but regular mitsuba grown for the leaves is very easy. Succession sowing is required. Mitsuba does pretty well in pots on a windowsill.

*3. Daikon radish sprouts

Called kaiware (which means “split shell), this is something you grow indoors rather than outside. Sew some seeds on a piece of thin washing-up sponge pushed into the bottom of a pot or a waterproof container of some kind, and keep the sponge moist. The seeds should sprout in about 2-3 days. Let them grow straight up if possible, though you can still use them if the stems curl. Used as a garnish and a salad ingredient.

4. Small Japanese turnips

Japanese turnips (kabu) are snow white and tiny compared to Western style turnips. They are very sweet and great in everything from pickles to soup to stews. The green tops can also be cooked. Provided you can prevent the pests from chewing the roots, they are very easy to grow, maturing in 30 days or so.

5. Japanese greens

[Note: this part has been edited to correct some botanical fallacies and confusion!]

There are many easy to grow Japanese greens: Komatsuna, Mizuna, Shungiku, Nanohana, etc. Most are better when grown in cool weather. If you can manage to overwinter komatsuna (botanical name brassica rapa var. peruviridis) and other greens in the spring you’ll get more tender and sweeter leaves. On nanohana (botanical name: brassica rapa var.amplexicaulis), which is rather similar to broccoli rabe or broccoli rapa , you will get some beautiful yellow-green flowers, considered as one of the harbingers of spring.

Beetles and other pests do love to make little holes in the leaves of tender greens, so you need to protect against that - if you don’t mind how it looks, covering them in horticultural fleece is the best way. Note that in Japan, greens (including spinach) are usually allowed to grow to full size rather than picked as ‘baby leaves’ for salads.

*6. Japanese eggplants / aubergines

Japanese eggplants or aubergines are small, black and slim. You can substitute eggplants sold as “Chinese”, which are a bright purple and very slim, but you can’t really substitute large Western style eggplants.

Growing eggplants is rather advanced gardening, especially in cool climates. I have had the best success growing them in large pots in a protected location. They require a rich growing medium, frequent fertilizing and lots and lots of water. If you’re up to it though, they will reward you with tons of gorgeous little eggplants that keep giving and giving.

*7. Shishito chili peppers

Shishito chili peppers are mildly spicy, rather like jalapeño peppers. They’re usually eaten while still green. Very nice as tempura and in many other dishes. If you can grow other kinds of peppers, chili or sweet, then you can grow shishito.

*8. Green onions

You use such a lot of green onions in Japanese cooking that it can be quite worthwhile to grow some in the garden. You need to sow then in succession for a continuous supply. They are quite easy to grow. There are lots of varieties, but I just grow a general “evergreen” type. You can grow these in pots or growing boxes. You can even try planting up the cut off bottoms of store-bought green onions - they will sprout!

9. Kabocha, or Japanese squash

You need lots and lots of space to grow squash. Japanese squash, or kabocha, are sweet, dense and decidedly not watery. I’ve had mixed success with kabocha, but when I have gotten some to ripen successfully we’ve spent the rest of the year talking about how good they were.

10. Daikon radish

I find daikon difficult to grow because we have rather stony soil, so the daikon roots often end up splitting in odd ways. Also, you can buy daikon or mouli quite easily in stores, so it may not be worth the effort. But your own are always better, of course, especially since you can also eat the delicious green tops, which most stores in Europe and the U.S. seem to cut off.

11. Gobo or Burdock root

Gobo, or burdock root, is very hard to get a hold of unless you have access to a fairly good sized Japanese grocery. But it’s also very hard to grow. It requires very deep digging to avoid it splitting into multiple thin roots, and it takes a long time to mature. But that earthy, crunchy flavor is an integral part of many Japanese dishes.

12. Japanese cucumbers

Japanese cucumbers are small, very thin and quite seedless. Worth growing if you like to eat lots of raw cucumber in salads and so on. Grow like other cucumbers, ideally on a trellis.

Other vegetables

I’ve had mixed, mostly bad, experiences trying to grow these:

  • Edamame. The tips tend to get attacked by tiny black beetles, even while bush beans are growing near them happily. I guess they must be very tasty. I may try them again though, because nothing beats really fresh edamame.
  • Soramame, or broad beans. Also very popular in England. I need to sow these in the fall I think…sowing them in the spring yields rather sickly and poor bearing plants. (Note, I’m not much of a gardener!)

I’d also like to get my hands on some myo-ga root. And if I could grow a real ume tree…

Some favorite seed sources [UPDATED]

My favorite Asian seed mail order source by far is Evergreen Seeds in Anaheim, California. I have been buying seeds from them forever, and my mother used to buy seeds from them back in the early ’80s for her garden in Long Island, New York. They ship internationally, which is so rare for a U.S. based company. They carry lots of Asian (as in Chinese/Korean/Thai) seeds besides the Japanese ones.

KCB Samen is a great online store based in Basel that sells a huge variety of squash seeds, including several kabosha varieties. A more detailed review.

Kitazawa Seed Company in Oakland, California is another good mailorder source (though their website seems to be broken at the moment). I don’t think they ship outside of the U.S. though.

I’d also like to mention Real Seeds, especially for UK and European gardeners. While they don’t really carry a lot of Japanese vegetable seeds, I just love their whole attitude. They don’t sell any F1 hybrids, just heirloom and open pollinated varieties. They actively encourage you to save your own seeds - unheard of for a seed supplier! Their web site is so fun to read I bought way more seeds from them than I needed.

A reader recommends Nicky’s Nursery in the UK. They have some ‘Oriental’ vegetable seeds, green, red and bi-color shiso seeds, and so on. They ship to Europe and ‘Rest of World’, but not to the USA or South Africa due to import restrictions by those countries.

A lot of general seed catalogs, like Thompson and Morgan, Burpee’s, Mr. Fothergills etc. do sell some Japanese vegetable seeds. Thompson and Morgan is my favorite big seed catalog, mainly because they ship worldwide. (The two major Swiss seed companies, Select and Samen Mauser, are good sources for vegetable seeds in general, but they don’t carry any Japanese vegetable seeds. They have great selections of green beans though.)

See also

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I absolutely love

I absolutely love shiso-flavoured anything. My Japanese friend’s mother would make bento lunches for her every day (even until high school graduation!), and at the bottom of the stackable tupperware was always a slab of rice sprinkled with dried shiso. At least, I’m quite sure that’s what it was! I personally love it wrapped around chicken yakitori skewers and also to flavour umeboshi. :)

Melanie | 15 March, 2007 - 01:48

You have to be careful about

You have to be careful about shiso—it can be a pest if you let it get out of control. It might be best to do this one in a planter.

anon. | 15 March, 2007 - 14:45

komatsuna

Love your site, maki. But I have to correct you on one point: komatsuna does not flower as nanohana, they are different plants. Nanohana is rape blossom, or rapini, I think there’s another name for it too. Tastes great raw with a little dressing, though almost no one prepares it without boiling/steaming, then serving as a hitashi karashiae. Please keep the great articles coming.

anon. | 16 March, 2007 - 21:55

nanohana

Thanks for the correction anon! It seems they are both members of the same brassica family but different varieties. I guess that teaches me not to trust my mom’s knowledge all the time…she told me they were one an the same. :P (broccoli rabe is also a member of the same family).

maki | 17 March, 2007 - 03:32

Great info

Thanks for the great information. I’m just starting to think about what to plant this year, so this was very timely. It would be fun to try some of these.

Kalyn | 25 March, 2007 - 01:42

green shiso

Can it be possible that no online source sells green shiso seeds in Europe (esp Germany?). It seems ordering from Evergreen Seeds involves a 3 week wait or more. Will it be too late to plant them in May? Will only be in a pot anyway as I have no garden.
And why are red shiso seeds easily available? Once I even bought some seedlings (that were sold more like sprouts, to eat as is).
I am really tempted by the Aerogrow with the Asian Herb mix…

uli | 26 March, 2007 - 21:32

Evergreen Seeds

Uli, in my experience Evergreen sends out orders immediately, so I usually get them here in Switzerland in a couple of weeks at most. Seeding shiso in May is no problem at all, especially for direct-seeding in the garden.

I have no idea why red shiso seeds are more available in Europe..maybe they are seen as more decorative?

maki | 26 March, 2007 - 22:11

Re: Evergreen Seeds

Your guess must be right. Years ago, red perilla used to be quite popular in the west as a decorative plant introduced, I think, by the Brits, before even more colourful foliage like the coleus family made it fall out of fashion a bit.

A Japanese grocery here (Montréal, Qc) has ao-jiso year round but the price is so high (easily 5 times as expensive as any other herb), it's not really affordable to me except for the few times a year I make more festive sashimi and indulge myself with hamachi and uni flown from Japan for the occasion.

It's too bad so few western chefs (at least around here) have discovered ao-jiso and it's not become trendy!

I never expected it might possibly grow here (Montréal, Qc) with our short summers until I've come upon your blog (thanks for the advice!) and started wondering. I asked the nice owner of the shop where I've been buying my Japanese tableware for many years and she told me it does grows fairly well here indeed, and about a small mail order place to get the seeds locally.

The same place also has seeds for shishito, komatsuna, mitsuba, mizuna, shungiku and a few Japanese varieties of bunching onions. All the above I've ordered have sprouted well and delivery and growing instructions were top notch, so if anyone in eastern Canada is looking for a one-stop place for the basic Japanese veggies & herbs seeds, Solana.com is a good place (very affordable seeds too. Shiso seeds are cheap enough to consider growing mejiso now that your article has tempted me about that).

A question about mitsuba: you mention that when grown normally without the process to keep the stalks white (it involves earthing them up or keeping the lower part in the dark, I guess?), it's sold/used for its leaves. Does it mean normally grown mitsuba can't/shouldn't be used at all in recipes that call for the stalks, or just that the blanched type is better suited for this? Is that because of a great difference in taste between the two?

A more tricky question: how much shiso plants should I grow if I want to be able to pick 20 leaves a week or so? They'll be potted, not in the garden.

I wonder if shiso and mitsuba would grow under grow lights in winter? I succeed moderately well growing some genovese and thai basil year round this way.

Dominic | 21 February, 2010 - 05:26

great info! thanks a

great info! thanks a lot!!

shisho, there i go! :D

Jza | 10 April, 2007 - 17:35

Shiso

I’ve just bought some shiso seeds to plant them as soon as they get here (i found some e-bay shops selling shiso at nice price, just look for “perilla”).
My question is, should i sow the seeds in a pot or should i put them first in a wet cotton piece? i remember growing some plants when i was a child that way, but i’m not sure about shiso anyway.

And an off-topic: i read your blog almost everyday! I’ve tried some of your recipes and they all turned out great!! Keep up the good work!!! :D

Jza | 7 June, 2007 - 11:46

sprouting shiso

Jza I’ve found that sowing shiso seeds into seed pods or pots works best - when I’ve tried soaking them first they had a tendency to rot and not sprout at all. It takes a while for them to sprout (about 2-3 weeks) but once up they are pretty sturdy - just keep them moist. Good luck with them! I’m glad you like the blog too! :)

maki | 7 June, 2007 - 14:57

yay! thanks! I hope they get

yay! thanks!
I hope they get here soon!
I’m making my own soy milk this weekend :) and cold soba noodles too! ^^

thanks again for all the recipes! :D

Jza | 8 June, 2007 - 12:44

shiso

i got some cuttings of shiso leaf (which is in a glass jar now) and it is starting to get some roots. i live in a very small apartment and can only afford a pot to grow it in. What size pot should i get? and what is the best way to start the process?

anon. | 9 August, 2007 - 03:47

potted shiso

Generally you can start it off in a small pot (like 2-3 inches or so), and it should be fine for a while in there. I think the general rule with potted plants is to not over-pot it (i.e. use a too big pot). Just repot if the roots totally fill the pot. Make sure it gets as much sun as you can give it!

maki | 9 August, 2007 - 12:50

Growing kabocha in Wales

I’m so addicted to your blog, Maki. Even if I don’t cook everything you suggest, I love reading about it, and looking at your photos. I just don’t know how you find time to do everything that running a blog must require, and have a personal life. Maybe you could give me some lessons in time management!!

Anyway, I wanted to ask:

I am growing some kabocha which have sprouted from some seeds I saved from a piece of kabocha I brought back from Japan (probably illegally). I think the kabocha itself was actually from New Zealand but whatever.

I had been reluctant to plant them outside, as it’s been quite cold and also we rent our house so I’m not supposed to do anything to the garden, but they were literally growing all over my kitchen counter so I just finally took the big step of moving them out. Following the advice of ‘The Independant’ guide to growing your own vegetables, I put them in a couple of big pots the size of large buckets, and left them in a sunny spot. But my question is, with them being so ‘viney’, do I need to stick a couple of canes in the pots for them to grow up? I always thought pumpkins grew on the ground, but I don’t want them to get mouldy down there.

I really hope they grow, and don’t get eaten by slugs. And you never know, the Great Pumpkin may come visit me as well.

I am also growing some shiso, the seeds for which I picked up at a hundred yen shop (surpisingly, they grew!). Do they prefer to be indoors or out?

Thanks for any help you can give! :)

Peter | 4 June, 2008 - 23:40

Peter, the kabocha squash

Peter, the kabocha squash will grow like mad all over your garden, and will continue to grow until there is a frost. What I do to ensure that some will ripen is to cut off the vines once 2 or 3 fruit per vine have formed (keep in mind that since it’s a squash (same family as courgettes and marrows) there are male and female flowers..the females are the ones that form little round fruit) You can try staking them or let them run on the ground. If you stake them you’ll need very sturdy stakes to hold the fruit up, which will get pretty heavy.

The shiso will do great in a sunny location outdoors, growing until frost. They can get sunburned sometimes, but this shouldn’t be much of a concern in Wales I think.

maki | 5 June, 2008 - 01:20

Thanks, Maki. I’m putting

Thanks, Maki. I’m putting the shiso out later, it’s only in pots anyway.

I really hope my kabocha ripen! I guess that should be about October, right? I haven’t even had flowers yet…

Peter | 5 June, 2008 - 17:49

You should start to get

You should start to get flowers in July or so (or when it gets really hot) and see the fruit start to form shortly after…and they should ripen in Sep-Oct, if the weather holds up. (if the summer is very cool though there might be problems…) Oh and squash plants like LOTS of compost or fertilizer.

maki | 6 June, 2008 - 06:44

Stinging nettle appearance

Just yesterday I was showing my 5-year-old our Shiso and it is funny that the first thing he said when he saw the green Shiso was that it looked like stinging nettles.

Funny (actually more heart-breaking than funny) to hear that someone pulled yours out because they looked like nettles!

Luis Morais | 14 July, 2008 - 14:10

stinging nettles

Even sadder to pull them out thinking they were stinging nettles, considering stinging nettles are not only edible but quite yummy. Cooked, of course. Cooking destroys the sting.

anon. | 19 July, 2008 - 07:40

Growing Gobo

This is just a suggestion, but has anyone tried growing burdock as some people do parsnips - in drainpipe plastic? Get several lengths about two or three feet long, fill with soil (band together for more than one plant obviously) and go from there?

If anyone has tried this method, did it work well for you?

Red | 2 December, 2008 - 01:41

Re: Growing Gobo

This method is mentioned in the Kitazawa Seed catolog. You can read it here. http://www.kitazawaseed.com/seed_070-29.html

Also a tip I got from a japanese farmer is to plant gobo when there are just enough leaves on a persimmons tree so that you can no longer see a small bird when it flies inside! Good luck...and forget the pipe technique, just dig deep!

candy k9 | 26 April, 2009 - 05:51

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

First of all Maki may I say I am addicted to Just Hungry and Just Bento... I lived in Japan for a long time and this site helps me recreate the magic and helps to solve a few things that puzzled me out there. Can I also recommend Nicky's Nursery in the UK as having a fantastic selection of Japanese vegetable seeds... including 3 different kinds of shiso - heaven!
http://www.nickys-nursery.co.uk/

Beartree | 9 February, 2009 - 05:13

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

Thanks Beartree! I've added it to the article.

maki | 9 February, 2009 - 12:54

Evergreen Seeds

Has anyone been in touch recently with Evergreen Seed? Their website is not active, and I've been unable to reach them by telephone. I do hope all is well there.

anon. | 20 March, 2009 - 19:05

Re: Evergreen Seeds

Hmm, that's a bit worrying. The site does say they'll be back soon...I hope that is so!

maki | 20 March, 2009 - 22:42

Re: Evergreen Seeds

Good news! The website is back up and active -- I just placed my spring order. There were a few mentions on the internet, dated over the past year, of Evergreen being temporarily unavailable. Maybe they're busy making and sending out seeds so they can't be constantly tending phone and website. They really are a great source.

anon. | 21 March, 2009 - 21:32

Re: Evergreen Seeds

That's really great news! I know they have been around since at least the '70s (if not longer) so I'm glad they still are in business! They really are a great resource.

maki | 23 March, 2009 - 08:30

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

Maki I have a question. I've just been on Nicky's Seeds and searched for "perilla". The results come back with, amongst others, green shiso and shiso britton. Which one is the shiso we commonly eat in Japanese cuisine please?

Jan | 30 June, 2009 - 00:30

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

Green shiso is the one used fresh. Not sure what 'shiso britton is' but if it's red, then it's only used for pickling usually since it has a bitter taste raw.

maki | 30 June, 2009 - 08:36

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

Thanks for the posts,

I have been living in Japan now for 4 years and just recently I have had the privilege of eating Gobo and there is no turning back can be cooked and used in so many great ways. So now I’m trying everything to start growing my own. I highly recommend cooking gobo as tempura and eating with curry. They are a great side dish high in fiber. And I just wanted to say thanks again I enjoyed the information about growing Shiso.

Dave | 26 September, 2009 - 06:03

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

Red Shiso [Perilla] is a native of southern Europe. If allowed to go to seed it will survive very heavy frosts and you will find it all over your garden. It cannot be grown in the same area as green shiso as they cross and a poor cousin seems to be the result. Green shiso will not tolerate much frost. Edible chrysanthemum [shinguku] is also a native of the medi. I also might mention that there are varieties kabocha that are not quite so rampant. I grow great Japanese veggies here on the coast of British Columbia.

Dick Goold | 11 January, 2010 - 03:10
Sir Alan | 27 May, 2010 - 18:41

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

Hi, what a great website! I got a seedling of shiso plant from a local science center (haha no joke -- there was a presentation on scented plants and shiso was introduced along with lemon basil and lemon geranium etc.) and I'm wondering what to do .. I live in an apartment and I did repotted it to a larger pot, but I'm hoping that the plant will keep going year after year like some people told me in outdoor the plant keep spreading like a "weed." This is the first time I grow any herbs and I'm clueless, and I did some googling but I don't seem to have exact answer. My apartment is warm and the window is facing the sunny end, all year. The shiso plant seems to be doing very well so far and the bush is getting big.

If I keep chopping off the flower pods -- (I was told that's what you do with basil..) -- will they keep going indoor, or should I collect seeds for the next year?

Thanks ...

BTW it's great if I can get updates from your webpage on facebook ... have you considered..?

Thanks again!!

anon. | 17 July, 2010 - 07:26

shiso plants

I recently purchased a small plant at our farmers market that the seller said was a variety of shiso. She labeled it 'sanjanu' (probably spelled it wrong she was not Japanese). Do you have any idea what I purchased?
Thanks

Sharon Stine. | 2 July, 2012 - 23:15

Re: shiso plants

The word sanjanu is unfamiliar to me, so I can't say what you bought unfortunately. She probably did misspell but I don't know.

maki | 3 July, 2012 - 07:51

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

It is very difficult to sew daikon seeds onto anything. I would suggest you sow them instead.

richardson | 24 February, 2013 - 19:37

Re: A dozen Japanese herbs and vegetables to grow

I just ordered a bunch of Japanese seeds. The store below has a good reputation and often organic varietes.

For EU deliveries of green shiso, red shiso, or britton:

http://en.runabergsfroer.se/?m=287

For mizuna, osaka purple, mitsbua, shungiku, tatsoi, etc. see:

http://en.runabergsfroer.se/?m=53

Daniel | 2 May, 2013 - 23:23

It took forever but....

Great post and enjoying the "101" series.

I love fresh shiso and it is really hard to find here on the Canadian prairies. I'd searched high and low for seeds to grow my own until one day I was standing in line at a tiny Korean/Japanese grocery store with an armload of supplies, when a middle aged Asian woman standing in front of me turned and looked at me (I'm a short white guy in my 30's)and my armload of stuff asked (her voice full of skepticism)... "what are you planning to *do* with all this stuff?"

I explained all the things I was going to attempt to cook and how I was going to do it - and asked for suggestions. We chatted for a bit and I mentioned that I wanted to grow my own shiso but couldn't locate any seeds.

She turned away and started up a conversation with the shopkeeper and he bent down behind the counter and pulled out a cardboard box full of little packets of seeds in clear ziploc bags with Korean characters written on them in wax pencil. The woman told me... "he says there's some in here" and then motioned me over to the box.

I quickly discovered that the box wasn't *just* shiso seeds... it had at least 10 different kinds of seeds and no pictures to go with them... just their Korean labels. So I smiled, nodded and flipped through them with what appeared to be great vigor and purpose until everyone in line turned back around and then I quietly slipped back in to line.

The woman who'd helped me out said... "did you get some seeds?" "Ummm,ummm..." I stammered. Finally I said... "ummm, I actually couldn't tell which ones were which so I..." The woman started barking something to the shopkeeper and after a very dramatic display of sighs and gesticulation, he walked over, plucked a packet of seeds out of the box and held them out to me.

"Wow... thanks a lot" I told the woman... " You really made my day" and I went on and on about how much I love j-food &etc. She gave me her card and it turns out she manages a Japanese restaurant in my part of town and extended an invitation for me to drop in (no... she didn't offer me a job ;] ).

Needless to say, I've treated the seeds like their the most precious little nuggets of treasure and so far, the plants have grown really well. I've noticed that they get a little anemic if you don't fertilize them once in awhile.

I encourage everyone to give it a try.

Jeff | 3 May, 2013 - 22:29

Re: It took forever but....

Thanks for the great story Jeff ^_^

maki | 4 May, 2013 - 01:42

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