As with most Asian countries, the staple food in Japan is rice, not bread, and was considered valuable enough that it was treated as a form of currency. The tax was collected in the form of rice, and samurais were paid in rice. The Japanese believe that rice is healthier than wheat since the latter contains more carbohydrates and is difficult to digest.
Japanese cuisine revolves around combining steamed white rice with other dishes and soups, stemming from Chinese dining formalities and Buddhist influences in the form of the traditional tea ceremony.
The heavy influence of Buddhism is present up to this day in Japanese dishes. Buddhist practices prohibit the consumption of meat and animals, leading to the invention of some staple vegetarian dishes like tofu. This was until the 19th century when meat became a more prevalent ingredient in a number of dishes.
Today, the most popular Japanese dishes worldwide are sushi and ramen–especially its instant and more convenient counterpart. While in Japan, a typical breakfast would consist of fried fish and miso soup, and lunch is served as ramen noodles or a donburi rice bowl.
You can check out the map at the end of the article for the map guide so you can add them to your Japan itinerary!
Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup and is considered as Japan’s soul food. Its main ingredients are Chinese wheat noodles, meat or fish broth, with common additions and toppings such as pork, nori seaweed, menma, and scallions. There are many variations of the Japanese ramen, just going by the regions of the country—Hokkaido with its famous miso ramen, the rich tonkotsu ramen from Kyushu, and the Tokyo-style ramen with thinner, curly noodles in a soy-chicken broth.
Ramen is also popular in many Asian countries such as China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan where it is referred to as rishi lamian, and in Korea as ramyeon. With its instant version being considered as a staple for any broke college student.
Although it’s going to take a while just to point out all the different kinds of ramen in existence, the noodle soup can be categorized according to the soup base: shio, shoyu, tonkotsu, and miso.
Shio ramen is one of the traditional versions of ramen, and one of the oldest of the four types. It is a light, clear and yellow broth that uses salt and either chicken, fish, vegetable, or seaweed. Shoyu is a slightly more salty brown broth that uses soy sauce as its main flavoring in either chicken, vegetable or the occasional fish or beef broth.
Miso is one of the newer kinds of ramen, with its popularity rising in the mid 1900’s in Hokkaido. It adds miso paste to chicken or fish broth, resulting in a rich and robust flavor. Tonkotsu is one of the most famous kinds of ramen you can find. It’s made by boiling pork bones for hours over high heat that results in a clear pork broth with a creamy consistency, similar to melted butter, or loose gravy.
Tokyo is the only place you’ll find so many Michelin star ramen restaurants, one of which is Tsuta, a small, world-class restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo. Tsuta offers a wide range of menu items, from humble $10 dollar ramen to high-class truffle oil items.
As one of the first ramen shops in Tokyo to receive a Michelin star rating, the small restaurant accepts a limited number of customers until the menu items run out to accommodate the high demands and big crowds. Despite this, Tsuta ramen is considered to be one of the best ramen restaurants in Tokyo and is definitely worth the wait.
Sushi is a traditional Japanese dish made with vinegar and rice, and often with sugar and salt, combined with other ingredients, usually fish and vegetables. The history of sushi can be traced back to southern China, from the ancient practice of preserving and salting fish by using lacto-fermented rice which is discarded before eating.
The introduction of raw fish served with vinegared rice became a later practice around the Edo Period. This Japanese dish has become a favorite delicacy around the world, being adopted by many countries, resulting in the Westernized American-style maki sushi with its hidden seaweed, and the Korean kimbap roll that has no raw fish.
The many types of sushi are determined by their filling, topping, and preparation. One of the most common types is the nigiri sushi, or hand-pressed sushi, where rice is shaped into an oblong by pressing between the palms and is usually topped with seafood like salmon, or tuna, and is sometimes tied together with a strip of nori or seaweed.
Makisushi, which is likely the first kind of sushi anyone will think of, is a rolled sushi that uses sheets of nori with a thin layer of rice and a variety of fillings. Makisushi has many types on its own, from the traditional Japanese rolls to the modern Westernized sushi rolls like the uramaki. Unlike traditional Japanese sushi rolls, uramaki has its seaweed wrapped inside the rice to hide it, and isn’t as popular in Japan.
Another type of sushi is the oshizushi or pressed sushi. The difference between this and the nigiri sushi is the way oshizushi is formed using a wooden mold called an oshibako, forming the dish into a block.
Considered as the best sushi restaurant in Japan is Sukiyabashi Jiro. It was opened in 1965 in Ginza by Jiro Ono who still serves as one of the restaurant’s oldest chefs, mentoring his own son in the craft.
Sukiyabashi Jiro was rated with Three Michelin Stars for 11 years but was recently stripped of the title in 2020, not because of a drop in quality, but because it does not accept direct booking through phone or its website, only through concierges.
Another great place to visit is Chojiro in Kyoto. The conveyor belt sushi restaurant is the perfect combination of modernized service and age-old sushi techniques. The menu items are extremely fresh and ordering is a breeze with iPads at every table. It’s affordable too!
Tempura is typically a deep-fried, batter-coated seafood, meat, or vegetable, a lot like a Japanese version of a fritter. Tempura batter is light and is usually made with iced water or sparkling water and soft flour, and is mixed for only a short time, resulting in a fluffy texture. There would sometimes be additions of baking soda or powder, eggs, oil, and other spices.
There are multiple tempura variations that use the same light coating. The most common and most popular tempura is the ebi or shrimp tempura. Other seafood such as cod, salmon, scallop, or eel are common ingredients as well, along with vegetable tempura.
Vegetable tempura is also referred to as yasai tempura, and would sometimes be served as a side dish. Some common vegetables that are used for tempura are bamboo shoots, mushrooms, squash, and eggplant.
Outside Japan, restaurants and chefs would make their own versions of the tempura, even adding panko breadcrumbs for an extra crunch. In Bangladesh, pumpkin blossoms are deep-fried in tempura batter that uses a bit of rice flour and a mix of spices, creating the Bengali kumro ful bhaja.
Some of the best tempura restaurants are found in Tokyo–two of them being Tempura Kurokawa, just outside of Tsukiji Market, and Kisetsu Ryouri Nemoto in Chiyoda.
Tempura Kurokawa is the product of long years of the chef perfecting their tempura recipe, serving classic flavors like shrimp, squid, and eel, while also offering some original items such as their tempura egg and tomato.
Kisetsy Ryouri Nemoto or simply Nemoto, meanwhile, offers more seasonal specialties and vegetable items. Some of the most popular options are shrimp and whiting.
A takoyaki, also called octopus balls, is a ball-shaped Japanese snack that usually consists of diced or minced octopus and served with takoyaki sauce, mayonnaise, aonori, and bonito flakes. It is made with a special griddle called a takoyaki pan, or takoyaki-nabe and takoyaki-ki, which has half circle molds and is made with heavy iron for even heat distribution.
Takoyaki was made popular in Osaka in 1935 as street food by Tomekichi Endo, whose store, Aizuya, is still in operation today. The original takoyaki used beef and konjac before octopus was used.
These days, you’ll find different fillings inside the round balls, like cheese or bacon, and special takoyaki that are unique to the different regions in Japan like Nagano, Nagoya, Nagasaki, and Tokyo.
Osaka is still one of the best places to try takoyaki, seeing as it is the region’s specialty dish. Besides the historical Aizuya in Chuo, Osaka, Takoyaki-doraku Wanaka near Namba Station is one of the favorites for Osaka locals. Wanaka offers four different toppings besides the traditional takoyaki sauce, and first-timers can even try their assorted plate.
Udon is a thick wheat-flour noodle that is used in a variety of dishes, the simplest being a hot soup, kake udon, made with a mild broth that consists of dashi, soy sauce, and mirin—kakejiru. Udon noodles are prepared by boiling them in water and are served differently, either in hot broth to warm up in the winter, or chilled broth in the summer.
The versatile noodle is served with a variety of toppings, which dictate the type of dish. The previously mentioned kake-udon is typically topped with green onions and a slice of kamaboko. Kare udon, or curry udon, uses a curry-flavored broth with meat or vegetables.
Cold udon dishes such as Zaru udon are topped with strips of nori and served on a bamboo tray that resembles a sieve, and is usually served with dipping sauce. A simpler chilled dish, Bukkake udon will come with cold, dashi broth.
There’s no better place to enjoy udon the Japan’s udon prefecture, Kanagawa. It boasts the highest consumption of udon noodles in the country and has a regional specialty known as sanuki udon.
Some of the best places to try udon in Kanagawa is Nikuju no Nantetsu in Sagamihara, and boasts a flavorful soup and thick, hand-cut fresh noodles.
Of course, you’ll also find some great options in Tokyo like Daitsune in Ginza. The vegetable shop-turned-noodle restaurant has been in business since the Edo Period until it was fully committed to making home-made udon in its 5th generation owner. Thanks to its history with organic supplies, Daitsune includes a special addition of seasonal vegetables into their dishes.
In Gunma Prefecture and Tokyo, you’ll be able to find Hanayama Udon, which serves the regional specialty, onihimokawa udon–a flat and wide noodle, and onigama, an award-winning dish that comes served in a raccoon bowl.
Omurice is a fusion dish that uses Western techniques and ingredients such as ketchup, and the French omelet. This Japanese dish consists of ketchup fried rice, wrapped or covered with an omelet.
There are many takes on the dish, some recipes even calling for a custard-like omelet that is split open when served. However, omurice has evolved into a comfort food that mothers would make for their children.
Despite how easy it is to make this dish at home, some of the best restaurants in Tokyo offer a unique take on the fusion dish. The omurice at Taimeiken is well-known and beloved for its signature wobbly omurice that is sliced over fried rice to reveal the soft, buttery inside.
Grill Kodakara is another place you can try a unique and delicious omurice specialty. It is located in Kyoto, near the famous Heianjingu Shrine. Their omurice uses chicken fried rice and is slow-cooked in a demi-glace, giving it a rich and robust flavor.
Teppanyaki is referred to as any dish that uses a “teppan” while cooking, such as okonomiyaki, yakisoba, monjayaki, steak, and even shrimp. The name is derived from the heated metal plate, “teppan”, and “yaki” which means grilled, broiled, or pan-fried.
Japanese teppanyaki would typically use noodles or yakisoba, with cabbage, sliced meat, or seafood–okonomiyaki. While Western-style teppanyaki would use beef, shrimp, scallops, chicken, and other assorted vegetables.
There are many dishes that are referred to as teppanyaki, such as the yakiniku or grilled meat, or seafood teppanyaki, which is referred to as okonomiyaki. Another variety is the monjayaki, which is similar to the okonomiyaki, but uses batter and other liquid ingredients. Monjayaki is made by chopping its components into smaller pieces before mixing it into the batter. Teppanyaki is usually prepared in front of customers or eaten right off the grill.
Some of the best teppanyaki can be found in Tokyo. Teppanyaki in Japan isn’t one of the cheapest meals you can have and probably won’t feature any flashy performances, but the taste more than makes up for it.
One of the best teppanyaki places in Tokyo is Misono in the heart of the Ginza district. The elegant restaurant serves courses the feature Kobe beef. Misono is reportedly the first teppanyaki restaurant in the world, established in 1945, but whether or not that’s true, the restaurant definitely holds up to its reputation as one of the best, if not the best, teppanyaki in Japan.
Atelier Morimoto XEX is another great teppanyaki restaurant, located in Roppongi. The high-end restaurant serves the best and finest ingredients in its dishes, from premium kobe beef and grilled lobster. Although Atelier Morimoto XEX is a bit far on the expensive side, the food is truly worth its price if you’re willing to splurge.
Donburi is a Japanese rice-bowl dish that consists of fish, meat, and vegetables that are simmered together and served over rice. The name literally means bowl, but this dish, donburi-mono, is served in large bowls called donburi-bachi. The donburi is a versatile Japanese dish that can be made with pretty much anything, including leftovers.
One popular donburi is the gyudon, or beef bowl. The beef is simmered in a mild, sweet sauce that uses dashi, soy sauce, and mirin, and is sometimes topped with an egg–raw or soft poached like the onsen tamago.
Oyakodon is another common donburi dish, and uses simmered chicken, beef, or pork, and egg, and sliced scallions. Another popular dish is the katsudon which uses tonkatsu or deep-fried pork cutlets, and onions that are simmered together. A beaten egg is then added before topping it on rice. Katsudon has its own regional variations in Japan.
The donburi is such a versatile dish that other countries have also adopted it and created their own, like the kimuchidon or kimchi don in South Korea, which uses kimchi or vegetables that have been fermented with hot pepper flakes.
Because donburi is such a flexible dish, there’s no easy way to pinpoint the best place to have it unless we’re talking about specialties or specific variations.
The best oyakudon or oyakudonburi is said to be served at Toritsune Shizendo in Chiyoda, Tokyo. Their oyakudon is made with Nagoya-raise chickens that provides tender meat, and gently cooked eggs with sukiyaki stock, creating a warm and comforting flavor.
Another place in Tokyo is Sakamotoya. The restaurant serves the classic katsudon using lean meat and onions. The delightful combination of crunchy meat and soft rice leaves customers wanting more.
Yakitori is a Japanese skewered chicken that uses kushi or a type of skewer that is made with steel or bamboo. Yakitori is a convenient street food that involves grilling the meat over a charcoal fire, after which it gets seasoned with tare sauce or salt.
You’ll usually find yakitori being sold in yakitori-ya or small shops that specialize in the dish, and only offer take-out, and yatai, which are small carts and stalls found around the streets in the busy cities or during festivals.
Yakitori would often use other cuts of chicken and other add-ons to prepare the convenient snack. Some of these variations are tsukune or chicken meatballs, negima which is chicken and spring onion, shiro which uses the small intestines, and sunagimo or chicken gizzard.
Yakitori can also be found in restaurants, some of the best places are right in Tokyo. Toriki Main is one that’s highly recommended by food critics including Anthony Bourdain.
The special chicken yakitori at Toyiki Main is the result of years of perfecting the recipe, with the head chef and owner preparing the meals right in front of the customers. Returning patrons praise the restaurant for its excellent service and hospitality.
Shibuya Morimoto is famous for their chicken dishes, torishashi or chicken sashimi, and tsukune yakitori. Morimoto is highly recommended by food critics like Mark Wiens and Mark Robinson. The place offers the best old-school experience, and although a little hard to find, Morimoto is one place that beckons diners in for more than just one taste.
Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese dinner served in multiple courses of organized dishes and is considered art you can eat. Kaiseki dishes are known to use and utilize the best and freshest ingredients possible to show off the seasonal flavors of the region. These traditional meals are often served at a ryokan, and have five different kinds of dishes–which, surprisingly, don’t even reach more than 500 calories.
Influenced by Buddhism, most dishes would feature vegetables and fish. These vegetarian dishes were called “shojin ryori” which for the purpose of its consumption, were prepared for religious reasons. Another type of kaiseki is the kaiseki-ryori or cha-kaiseki, similar to Western haute cuisine, and is normally served at a Tea ceremony.
If you don’t happen to be staying at a ryokan or would rather explore other options, the best places to try kaiseki is in culture-rich Kyoto and the capital, Tokyo.
Roan Kikunoi in Kyoto is a two-floor restaurant that features some of the best kaiseki lunches and dinners in Japan. Their service and meals are so good, Roan Kikunoi earned two Michelin stars in 2021, making it more a destination than a stop.
Kyoto Kitcho in Arashiyama provides excellent service, food, and even offers a Chef’s Course that personalizes kaiseki meals according to the tastes of its diners, and special ocassions.
In Tokyo, Nihonryori Ryugin is praised as one of Asia’s 50 best restaurants. The restaurant’s seasonal Chef’s Choice menu has been perfected by Chef Seiji Yamamoto, using ingredients at their peak.
The onigiri is also known as the Japanese rice ball, and well-known comfort food. Despite it being referred to as a ball, the onigiri is more commonly shaped like a triangle although it would sometimes be cylindrical or round. Onigiri was first created as a way to keep rice fresh for longer by using salty or sour ingredients as natural preservatives.
Although it looks similar to sushi, the onigiri is made with plain white rice instead of the seasoned sushi rice. There are also multiple types of onigiri since the basic recipe mostly requires plain rice and the optional seaweed wrap, and a filling.
One of the most common types of onigiri is the wrapped onigiri or konbini-style onigiri which are normally found in convenience stores–hence the name, “konbini”. The rice is first shaped into a triangle and is applied a light pressure to keep the shape, then half of a nori sheet is wrapped around it. Another kind is the seasoned onigiri that uses furikake seasonings or a combination of salt, seaweed, sesame seeds, and other fine or ground up ingredients that is added to the plain rice.
A newer type of onigiri is the onigirazu, or omusubi, that does not actually take the traditional shape of a round or triangular onigiri. The onigirazu is a lot like a sandwich and is typically made with a chicken fillet or karaage filling in between the rice before it is wrapped all the way around with a nori sheet.
If you find yourself in Tokyo, make sure to look for Misojyu, a quaint restaurant in Asakusa that specializes in homemade onigiri and other Japanese comfort food. The small restaurant can’t accommodate large groups but is worth a stop for its cozy atmosphere and superb food.
Onigiri Bongo, a small restaurant near Ohtsuka Station in Tokyo, makes fluffy, and barely pressed onigiri right in front of you, the same way you’d see sushi chefs preparing rolls on their counters. This is the perfect place to head to if you like more filling than rice in your onigiri.
Japanese karaage, usually chicken, is a deep-fried dish that uses a potato starch batter coating. Chicken karaage is typically made using the boneless thigh part for its fat and ability to stay tender and juicy. The chicken, or really anything to be made into karaage, is marinated in soy sauce, sake, and ginger, and sometimes garlic, curry, or chili powder.
Karaage is a very popular dish in Japan and abroad, being featured in a number of television shows and anime/manga, like Shokugeki no Souma, and has been adapted and modified by the different regions in Japan.
In Hokkaido, karaage takes the shape of the zangi, which is made with a marinade and served with spicy dipping sauce. Nagoya has tebasaki, which leaves in the bones and uses chicken wings instead. Tebasaki is served with a sprinkling of sesame seeds and a specialty sauce unique to the area.
Outside of Japan, the karaage has been adapted to suit the taste of different countries. In Korea, there is the dakgangjeong, which marinates the chicken in milk and is coated with the sweet and spicy sauce, usually with honey, and other seasonings.
In Tokyo, you’ll find yourself surrounded by karaage, finding it in just about every restaurant in the metropolis. Some of the best places to have this crispy chicken dish is at Kin-No-Torikara, and Torian Hatagaya–both highly recommended restaurants that have received praise from reputable food critics.
Miso soup is probably one of the quickest traditional Japanese dishes anyone can make. The soup base uses dashi stock and miso paste and is mixed with many optional ingredients like meat, vegetables, and tofu. Also called omiotsuke, miso soup is often served with rice at breakfast time.
Miso paste is made of fermented soybeans with salt and koji. As miso soup is a very flexible dish, it’s easier to categorize them according to the type of paste used for the soup: white miso which requires a short fermentation period, red miso which takes much longer and awase miso, a combination of both.
Besides the simple miso and dashi combination, other ingredients can be added to the soup like green onions, seaweed, tofu, mushrooms, and chopped vegetables.
Japans’ best selling miso soup can be found in Otaki, Hokkaido, in a restaurant called Kinoko no Okoki or “Mushroom Kingdom”. The mushroom emporium serves the must-try mushroom miso soup that uses three kinds of mushrooms, each variety changing with the seasons.
Tofu is a staple ingredient in Japanese cuisine and any vegetarian dish. Japanese cuisine was heavily influenced by Buddhist beliefs which restricts the consumption of meat, which was not even common until the more recent eras in Japan.
Tofu is made from the curds of soy milk, which is pressed into molds to remove excess moisture and shape it into blocks–much like making cheese. Tofu comes in a wide variety, depending on how fresh, or how much moisture it contains.
Silken tofu, also called kinu or kinugoshi in Japan, is soft and has a high water content due to the fact that it is not pressed. Momen tofu, meanwhile, is made by pressing out extra moisture, resulting in a firmer, and coarse texture that makes it ideal for stir-fried dishes.
From momen tofu, atsuage tofu can be made by frying the firm tofu until it forms a golden brown outer crust. Another kind of fried tofu is aburaage, which is tofu deep-fried in oil. The difference between this and atsuage is that aburaage is fried in thin slices while the other is cut up in small cubes.
Japanese tofu is one of the best varieties around, and some of the must-try tofu restaurants can be found in Tokyo.
Tofuya Ukai is an Edo-style restaurant located at the foot of Tokyo Tower, with an outdoor Japanese garden with a koi pond that makes it feel like a step back in time. The menu features homemade tofu dishes, even offering vegetarian options for their meat dishes.
Meanwhile, in Shibuya, Tofu Sorano serves sophisticated Japanese tofu cuisine and features tapas-style dishes.
Soba, unlike udon, is made using buckwheat flour or with the addition of wheat flour, making it much darker in comparison. Soba noodles can be served hot in a soup or chilled with dipping sauce.
Many soba dishes are similar to udon like zaru, which calls for the noodles to be served in a sieve-like bamboo vessel and a dipping sauce. There is also the hadaka soba which is the simplest cold dish that calls for the soba noodles to be served on their own. Being served cold like this is preferable for a lot of foodies because it brings emphasis to the unique texture of the noodles, unlike hot soups which softens the noodles even more.
Hot soba dishes are served in a soup of hot tsuyu, which is a mixture of dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. Some common types of hot soba are the kare soba or kare nanban, which uses Japanese curry as a soup base, Kitsune nanban or fox soba that uses aburaage as a topping, and tempura soba, with large ebi or shrimp tempura on top of the noodles.
Shinshu Soba in Nagano makes their own in-house soba noodles from buckwheat flour sourced directly from farmers. The restaurant is one of the best places to enjoy fresh, hand-made soba noodles and try the rich dipping sauces or the house special, Inaka soba.
In Izumo, you can find the Kenjo Soba Haneya, a soba restaurant specializing in Izumo soba, founded in 1800. The soba noodles at this restaurant are made using traditional methods that make them look darker, more fragrant, and has a taste so rich, you don’t even need to season it.
Nabemono, or simply nabe, is a variety of hot pot dishes in Japan. This kind of dish is made by cooking everything in one pot, hence being called one-pot dishes. Nabe dishes are soups and stews that are commonly enjoyed during winter seasons where people would gather around a table to socialize while the dish continues to simmer on the table. The pots are usually made with clay or dense cast iron.
There are two types of nabe in Japan according to the stock used. The milder stock is usually flavored with kombu and eaten with a dipping sauce, while the stronger stock is made with miso, soy sauce, and dashi. The varieties are, however, dictated according to region and the ingredients added into the stew.
The Hokkaido variation, ishikari-nabe, uses salmon in miso broth with tofu or vegetables such as daikon radish, napa cabbage, potato, and shiitake mushrooms. In the Kansai region, nabe is enjoyed as udon-suki which uses udon noodles, and hariharinabe, an Osaka specialty, that consists of whale meat and mizuna.
One of the most common types of nabe is the shabu-shabu, which is often what foreigners are familiar with, and consists of thinly sliced meat and vegetables and eaten with a dipping sauce. This versatile hot pot dish has also adapted to a variety of tastes and flavors, one of which is the kimchi nabe that makes use of Korean kimchi in an anchovy broth.
You can find some of the most delicious hotpots in Tokyo, like Genkai in Shinjuku, that serves thick and hearty nabe. You can even try their special chicken broth and vegetables.
Another great place to enjoy this hearty meal is Kotogaume in Shinkawa. The restaurant was started by a former sumo wrestler, inspired by his love of nabemono.
Wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets that are usually enjoyed with green tea or matcha and are served during tea ceremonies. Wagashi would typically use plant-based ingredients like azuki beans, rice cakes, rice flour, agar, sesame paste, and chestnuts. Vegans and vegetarians would be able to enjoy most wagashi without worry.
Some special types of wagashi can only be enjoyed seasonally, and are served at festivals, temples, gardens, and pastry shops. There are many kinds of wagashi but the most common is mochi, a type of rice cake that steams, pounds, and molds short-grain glutinous rice until it forms the desired shape.
There is also the daifuku which is a mochi that’s wrapped around a filling, usually sweet red bean paste. Similarly, the manju is also traditionally wrapped around sweet red bean paste but instead uses a wheat-based dough.
Since wagashi is a popular kind of dessert unique to Japan, there are many cafes and pastry shops that offer a wide variety for everyone to try. However, some of the most delicious and sought after treats can be found in Tokyo, in its older districts of Asakasa, Ginza, and Asakusa.
One of these prominent pastry shops is Toraya, with its branches found in Asakasa, Ginza, and Marunouchi. The wagashi titan boasts 500 years of experience, even having served their sweets to the imperial court.
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