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Archive for September, 2009

Day 1:

Ellie & I depart Shimokita at approximately 7pm on Friday night, after work.  We spend most of the evening winding our way down to the Tohoku Expressway which starts in Hachinohe.  The first highway driving I’ve done since arriving in Japan.  The road is new and relatively empty, and we are quickly out of Aomori and into Iwate prefecture.  We drive until around midnight and pull into a rest stop, where we discover a relatively clean bathroom and an entire room full of vending machines, which not only offer cold & hot beverages, a wide array of cancer sticks, but also frozen food (yaki-soba anyone?) zapped to order.  We brush our teeth, take out our contacts and lay out our sleeping pads & mats in the back of the Beast.

Day 2:

We are up by 6:30 and on the road by 6:45.  We drive nearly down to Sendai in Miyagi-ken and pull off into another rest stop where we cook a breakfast of potatoes, eggs, tomatoes, and spinach on our stove.  People look at us strangely, and one little girl is incredibly intrigued by my washing spinach in the bathroom sink.  I am anxious about my shoe situation, regular trail runners on a multi-day hike, so we venture into the big city of Sendai (the largest city in the Tohoku region) to see if we can find an outdoor store that sells boots.  We find two stores, neither of which carry anything worth buying in my size.  I settle on a good pair of insoles and we get the hell out of dodge.

Soon after Sendai, we get off the toll road (approx 8700 yen/$90) and start heading West.  A general direction that eases my heart.  We pass sleepy little towns, a huge dammed up reservoir-come-tourist attraction, one fairly large city called Nan-yo, whose main industry appears to be grape and pear farming, and on to a quaint little village, Oguni, at the mouth of the Iide mountain range.  Past Oguni, we start venturing onto even smaller, windier roads through the mountains, passing crystal-clear rivers, farmland, and giant, old houses that hearkan back to a time when family stayed to work the land, rather than brain-drain out to the cities.  We pass the small township of Iide and drive another 20 minutes into the mountains and arrive at Iide-sanso, an onsen and ryokan (bed&breakfast) whose only purpose is to service the hikers coming through the trail head.  We elect not to camp at the designated “hut” for 500 yen a head due to the loud and rowdy other hikers.  Instead we ready ourselves for the next day, make some couscous for dinner, and sleep in the back of the Beast.  Already, I love this car more knowing that with it, I’ll always have a roof above my head.

Day 3:

We are up and on the trail by 7am, having been woken several times in the night by other hikers driving in, parking, and loudly readying themselves for departure.  Probably because it’s Silver Week, but also because I get the sense that most trails in Japan (take Fuji for example) are always a bit of a traffic jam, there are LOTS of other people also preparing to head into the same mountains.  Most of them are above 50, wearing towels in all manners as neckwear, headwear, and sun protection, are carrying far more on their backs than they should, and tromping around noisily with their anti-bear bells dinging annoyingly away.  Knowing this, Ellie & I elect to take a less common trail up the ridge, even though the distance is a little longer.  We are rewarded by only meeting one other group of people during the first ascent.

Iide Valley, still below tree line

Iide Valley, still below tree line

Unlike hiking in the US, where switchbacks make the route up a little easier, trails in Japan literally go straight up the ridge line.  Another big difference is the quality of the trails here.  Unlike our (the US’) wide-spread infrastructure in building and maintaining trails, Japan doesn’t pay anyone to keep up the paths.  The result is lots of erosion and tons of overgrowth.  We spend the better part of the morning under green tree-line.  Around noon, we crest a hill and are greeted with the most amazing site: mountains and mountains as far as you can see.  The sky, Colorado blue, and the mountainsides covered with low-brush grass, Asian maple trees, bamboo: a patchwork of all oranges, yellows, and reds.  Autumn has apparently come to Yamagata-ken, at 1,500 meters.

Finally above tree line

Finally above tree line

Japanese Maples turning red, Mountains beyond

Japanese Maples turning red, Mountains beyond

We break for lunch and have an easy two hours until the Monnai hut stop for the night.   Seems that most trails in Japan have hut networks for through-hikers.  Some better equipped than others, with blankets, stoves, and innkeepers that provide food.  Some more basic: a small 2-storied building with communal rooms to put down your sleeping mats and a drop toilet.  This first hut was in the latter category, and it’s a no-brainer deciding to pitch our tent outside, rather than sleep in a stuffy room with 20 loud and smelly strangers.  We arrive around 3pm, and set up our tent near the water source.  Sunset proves gorgeous this night, perched above the clouds, watching the sun drop under them into the horizon.  With the sun, drops the temperature, and we make dinner and tea, shivering, climb into our sleeping bags to read by our headlamps, and are asleep by 8pm.

Sunset & Clouds from Mt. Monnai Hut

Sunset & Clouds from Mt. Monnai Hut

Sunset and Clouds

Sunset and Clouds

Day 4:

We are up by 5:30, out of the tent by 6, and still are some of the latest sleepers in tent city.  Breakfast is warm muesli with extra raisins.  Tea gets me where I need to be.  We pack up and out and are rewarded with another beautiful day, climbing up and down peaks; I think we stood on top of 5 total mountains that day.   At 1pm, we reach a junction where we have 3 choices: stop for the day (X), continue on to Honzan Hut by Iide Peak for another 1.5 hours (X), or drop our packs, move water and lunch into our strap-off top packs, and do a quick up-and-back of Dainishi-san, the highest peak in the Iide Mountain range at 2,105 m.  The weather is beautiful, and despite Ellie’s blisters, morale is high, so it’s an easy decision.  We decide for a long day, and are enjoying a lunch of sausage and cucumber at the peak by 3pm.  By 4:30, we are back at our packs, fill up on water from one of the many mountain springs (of which we don’t have to filter!!) and are heading towards Iide.

Tori on summit of Mt. Kitamata

Tori on summit of Mt. Kitamata

Lunch on Dainishi

Lunch on Dainishi

At one point, the trail widens and flattens, and we find ourselves walking through almost a Kansas plains like scene, tall grasses swaying drowsily in the evening sun.  At sunset, we are on top of Iide, where we find a small Jizo shrine and the wind picks up.  We layer accordingly and start hiking towards the Honzan hut.  Instead, we find a sweet little spot protected by a rock wall that shelters us enough from the crazy windstorm we have all of a sudden found ourselves in.  Dinner that night, a highlight: tortellini, sun-dried tomatoes, and a pesto sauce.  Hot water to warm our bellies inside and out.  I fall asleep to the tent rocking in the wind, almost too toasty in my bag, by 7:45.

Iide Plains

Iide Plains

On top of Mt. Iide at sunset

On top of Mt. Iide at sunset (photo c/of Ellie)

Day 5:

Tuesday is an early day.  Ellie’s watch goes off at 4:45am to catch the sunrise.  It’s cloudy, and we lollygag around until we see the sky start to pinken.  Even with the murky horizon, though, as far as sunrises go, this one wasn’t half-bad.  We eat breakfast and watch the night turn into daylight.  We start down to the car, not realizing the trek we have in front of us.  By far, the hike down is beyond difficult.  The sky starts to spit on us, the wind abates not, and even with gloves on, my fingers are stiff and cold.  Rather than dropping in elevation suddenly, this trail takes us down and then up another mountain, down and then up again.  Over and over. My knees ache, my entire body hurts, and my mind is so focused on where to place my feet, that the whole process is entirely exhausting.  The trail turns so bad at points, we cling to roots so as not to slide off.  At other times, the route is so technical that I pack up my poles and clamber up and down rocks and tree branches at 70-85 degree angles, handholds becoming as important as placement for my feet.  We pass thickets of bamboo, old-growth beech trees, pink barked birch trees, and see a couple snakes slithering away from our approaching footsteps.

You'd think to go downhill, you wouldn't have to go back up this guy

You'd think to go downhill, you wouldn't have to go back up this guy

Grumy Dee & Grumpy Dum

Grumpy Dee & Grumpy Dum (photo c/o Ellie)

After walking endlessly, not finding the junctions we expect to on our map, the river below finally comes into sight, and even the constant downhill is a welcome relief – knowing that much sooner we’ll be on flat ground.  We reach the icy, gushing water at about 4:30pm, a full and exhausting day’s hike from starting peak.  We fill up on delicious, chill river water, zapping it with the SteriPen to ward off against any nasty bugs.  The trail along the river evens out, though it is thick with overgrowth.  Finally, we arrive at the car a little before 6pm; it’s almost dark.  After a much-needed and thorough bath at the onsen, soaking our weary bones, washing away 4 days worth of grime and sweat and dirt, we drive to the nearest town, fill up on greasy, delicious tonkatsu (though all we both wanted was a hamburger), drag ourselves to the car and manage to find an empty, quiet rest stop on the way to the highway. Dead and blissfully asleep by 10pm.

Finally

Finally

Day 6:

Drive home.  Mentally and physically prepare for the return to “real” life.  The happenings, images, and occurences of the past several days already receding into dreamy memories – a haven, a hiatus from the daily grind.

*Despite the intensity of our final day, it was beyond worth it.  And, for the first time since I’ve arrived in Japan, there was no other place I would have rather been.  Sure I could name a person or two I wanted adventuring by my side,  but what I felt was such utter contentment and ease that I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.  Not even a Blues and Brews weekend in Telluride would have been better than this.  Not even close.

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The nature of the consecutive holidays in Silver Week had me back home from backpacking in the Iide mountain range in Yamagata prefecture late Wednesday night, and while Thursday came early, a two-day work week is much more manageable than a five-day one after some time off.  More on my Silver Week adventures later, I’d love to share a highlight in my work and lesson planning which has me super excited.  Today, I arrived at one of my elementary schools to find that I was responsible for 2nd period English class with my 1st and 2nd graders.  With nothing but a stack of cardboard numbers as inspiration, I decided to make today’s lesson about numbers, 1-10, and basic body parts (head, arms, legs, eyes, nose, mouth.)  My lesson plan went as follows:

1. Daily Greeting

  • Hello, Good Morning, How are you?, I’m great, thanks!

2. Numbers

  • 1 – 10
  • 10 – 1 (much harder than I thought it would be)

3. Song

  • 1 little, 2 little, 3 little Monsters (I remember when I learned this song, “monsters” was “indians,” but apparently America has become increasingly PC in the past twenty years and “indians” is no longer appropriate.  Regardless, I prefer monsters, anyway.)
  • The song I downloaded was a little fast, so I played it first, translated, we practiced several times at our own pace, then sang along to the song a couple times.
  • Goal: getting the kids comfortable counting up and down, and to introduce the ‘fun’ aspect to the classroom.  Goal reached successfully.  (There’s nothing worse than a quiet, disinterested classroom.)
  • Incidentally, iTunes really pulled through, and I now own 150 Children’s Songs for $9.99

4. Body Parts Review? Introduction?

  • Head, Arms, Legs
  • Eyes, Nose, Mouth

5. The Monster Drawing Game

  • Split the class into 1st grade (4 students) and 2nd grade (4 students)
  • I drew an example monster on the blackboard with: 2 heads, 3 arms, 1 leg, 6 eyes, 4 noses, 8 mouths.
  • Had the first team come up, with each student drawing the body part and however many of it that I would say at the moment.  Ditto with the second team.
  • Had kiddos name their monsters
  • Pointed to monster body part, had students say back to me the body part and how many of it there was.
  • Goal: Basic body parts and saying numbers non-consecutively. Getting kids up and moving.  Fun!  Goals reached successfully.

6.  What time is it, Mr. Monster?

  • Essentially ‘Red Light, Green Light’
  • Teacher and I showed class first
  • Students move desks, all stand on one side of the room.  Other student, or me first, stands at opposite side of room with back turned to kiddos
  • Students ask “What time is it, Mr. Monster?”  Mr. Monster says, “It’s 4 o’clock!” (Insert numbers 1-10 here.)  Students take that many steps towards Mr. Monster.  The person to reach Mr. Monster becomes the next Mr. Monster.
  • Goal: Getting kids to conjure up numbers on their own.  Simple English phrase repetition.  Body movin’, body groovin’.  Fun!  Goals reached successfully!

7. Closing remarks

  • Kids counted up and back for me, named body parts
  • Everyone said “Thank you!” and I said, “You’re welcome! Goodbye”
  • Everyone said “See you!”

Kids all seemed to have fun, lots of giggling, being super enthusiastic, and a little competitive.  Japanese teacher commented on how interesting my lesson was and how fun it was to watch the students.  Asked me for a CD of the Kid’s Songs to play in her class in the morning, as the thinks it will help with English Comprehension!  Sunny outside, get to make curry and rice with the handicap class during 4th period and eat it for lunch, Welcome Party this evening at my Principal’s House.  Today will be just fine.

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In late August while my Mom was visiting, we had the chance to check out one of Shimokita Peninsula’s tourist attractions/claim to fame – Osore-zan, which can be more or less translated to Mt. Doom, Mt. Terror, or Mt. Fear.  According to Wikipedia: “Osorezan marks the entrance to Hell, with a small brook running to the neighboring Lake Usorisan, the Japanese equivalent to the River Styx. The reputation is not surprising, given that the very volcanically-active site is a charred landscape of blasted rock filled with bubbling pits of unearthly hues and noxious fumes.”  It is one of Japan’s three most sacred sites, housing a temple that was built nearly 1,000 years ago when Buddhism found its way to Northern Japan, and dedicated to the souls of unborn babies and young children. Today, you can still find itako, or the blind elderly women, who will commune with dead spirits for a fee, though according to this NYTimes article, it is a dwindling profession.

Getting to Osore-zan is about an hour and a half ordeal from my town, which involves urging the Beast along impossibly windy, steep mountain roads.  Just as you think the car is going to top off, and the temple will appear, the road descends down another 20 minutes into a green valley.  That is, green until you see the too-clear stream water, depositing rust-colored sediment all along the banks, and then are greeted with a cloudy, but oh-so-cerulean-green-blue lake, surrounded by scratchy looking, pine covered volcanic mountains.  Imagine, then, on this grey day, pulling into a parking lot, paying 500yen and walking into a peaceful, alternate universe, the landscape of which is covered with Jizo statues and cairns built by visitors.

Osorezan Temple

Osorezan Temple

The landscape of Osorezan is truly awe-ful.  The grounds themselves are lunar grey, and I thought how fitting it was that the day we visited be cloudy and cool.  There is a silence about the place, as if the volcano’s last eruption took all the sound out of the valley, and left behind a dead-noise, a constant gurgle from below.  There are no birds except for large black crows, no insects, the land being so inhospitable to sustaining life.  The only creatures living here are the poisonous mamushi pit vipers, signs warning of which dot the landscape, and only one type of fish able to live in the acidic waters of the lake.  Rather, there is the smell of sulfur, steaming up before you in blackened, burnt rock formations.  Yet, all around, as the landscape rises, the forest reclaims its territory, the contrast of which is remarkable to behold.  We clambered through the wasteland, dotted with shrines and children’s toys, small coin offerings, and little peaceful Buddhas, and saw that where some grass managed to grow, it was quickly deadened, turned to straw still stuck in the earth.

On the banks of Lake Usorisan

On the banks of Lake Usorisan

Offerings

Offerings

Shrine

Shrine

*Hopefully this will tide you readers over for the next week – it is the Silver Week holidays starting after work today, and I am venturing on a Japan-style road trip into Southern Tohoku and then into the wilds to hike myself a couple mountains until next Wednesday.  I’ll be back to tell you all about it.  Until then…

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The past week has been a busy one, and working two Saturdays in a row (making for two 6-day work weeks) is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Inevitably, I need at least two days per week to myself, to do with what I will.  But in any case…

Speech Contest was last Wednesday.  It consisted of students from Junior High Schools all over Shimokita Peninsula competing against one another in 2 minute recitations (1st year students),  5 minute recitations (2nd or 3rd year students), and 5 minute speeches of their own “writing” (2nd or 3rd year students).  I put quotes around “writing” because many of the ALTs either will entirely write or heavily edit the students first work.  The good news is that all three of my students placed 2nd in their sections.  My youngest student should have gotten first place, but what can you do?  They did however win the “Best School” Award and brought back the flag for the second consecutive year!  Everyone was pretty proud of our little school.  To make matters even better, we left under an auspicious brilliant rainbow.

JTE, Students and me

JTE, Students and me

Friday and Saturday were Sports Days, where we traveled to the nearest city to play against all the other Junior High Schools in Shimokita.  Our school only has a volleyball team, a track & field team, and a baseball team.  Volleyball was shortlived.  Our girls lost the first game, so there was nothing left for them to do but cheer on the other teams.  Track & Field is pretty solid, with one of our boys as the best 1500 meter runner in Aomori Prefecture, and 3rd in all of the Tohoku region.  Track & Field went on for the majority of both days.  Our baseball team is also pretty good – they were waived the initial game, won the second game in the tournament, and so played for the finals Saturday morning.  Unfortunately, they lost in the last inning.  Baseball is definitely THE SPORT in Japan.  Whereas in the US, the band plays at Football games (or so I’ve heard?), the Brass Band plays at the baseball games here.  Each home-team brass band plays the duration of when their team is up to bat – little ditties that get stuck in your head too easily.  The chants are also pretty standard and everyone knows them.  I myself, even caught on fairly quick, tapping my two plastic noise-makers together!  Mostly, though, Sports Day was an excellent excuse for me to whip out the Track Suit!

Sports Day - Baseball game

My long week ended with a welcome/drinking party with my colleagues at a yummy “Italian” restaurant.  Enkais (as they are called here) are more or less mandatory work parties that often consist of an “all you can drink” menu.  They are structured in the sense that there are opening speeches, toasts, and other speeches done by various members of the party, but basically it’s a chance for everyone to booze and get a little rowdy.  It started as an early night, but people were already getting a bit toasted, and towards 8pm, much to my surprise – everyone stood up and announced that we were going to a second bar! This second bar, called a “Snack” was a small room housed in a building with lots of other “Snack” bars.  You know it’s truly a Japanese party, though, when the karaoke comes out and everyone becomes SO serious about the singing.  Hopefully not too much of a party-pooper, I called it a night after my shochu-and-water and was in bed by 9:45pm.  The best possible ending to a crazy long week.

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As a whole, the Japanese are not a forthright culture.  This is not to say that they are not honest and trustworthy, but rather that they often say things they don’t mean, skirt around the elephant in the room, that reading “between the lines” is crucial in trying to operate amidst them, and that, as a whole, they are uncomfortable with pointed opinions, questions, and preferences.  I imagine myself a bit of a 1950s housewife, meekly hinting at how I’d like to do so-and-so, say, redecorate the living room with new curtains, hoping that I implant a seed in someone’s brain that makes my desire seem like their idea. “Here’s some money, honey…You better get some new curtains before the guests arrive next week.”  Or take for example, a recent interaction I had with my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English), who started off this conversation regarding our trip to the “big city” for the English Speech Contest, as such:

“I have ordered box lunches for everyone.”

“Oh, great!” I said, truly enthusiastic about not having to prepare a lunch for tomorrow.

“Ohhh…did you want one?  I ordered them awhile back.”

“Oh…is it too late…?” said I.

Getting out her phone, about to dial the number.  A number?  “Well, it is a *bit* late.  But I suppose…”

Me, being deferential: “Well, no, no, if it’s too late to order another one, that’s fine.  I can happily make and bring my own.”

“Is that okay?” she says, visibly relieved.

I’ll put it to you straight.  This interaction drove me crazy.  For one thing, I wanted a box lunch.  It is a pain to have to make lunch every. single. day.  Secondly, she has known for this entire time that I was joining the trip.  And to discuss vocab, by “everyone” what she really meant was “everyone but you.”  So, why was I not asked previously, or why was there no initiative taken to also feed me?  (This is food we’re talking about.  This is life.)  Lastly, and most frustratingly, I am the one who backed down, which seriously bothers me.

I backed down, though, for several reasons: the largest one being that it was the right, and moreover, expected thing to do.  And I couldn’t ignore the deeper meaning beneath the conversation.  I like to think of myself as relatively skilled in this, perhaps to my own detriment.  Whether from a lifetime of interacting with my mother – thanks Mom…? – or that I fancy myself a fairly perceptive woman, I can *usually* gather what a person is trying to say, without them saying it.  This skill, however, does not mean I like to conduct myself in such a way.  As a product of American culture, as a relatively fiery lady, and as my father’s daughter, I would much rather converse in direct dialogue; as in,  “I didn’t think about the fact  that you were joining us, I feel as if it’s too late to notify them about the lunch, I’m so sorry but would you mind packing your own o-bento that day?”  OR in general terms, “This is what I expect from you, and this is what I’d like to be able to do.”

So, what do I do here – an American, opinionated, younger woman working in Japan?  Where is the balance I must find between being a doormat and being an unyielding wall?  I hope that my choices are not limited to such polar opposites, but on one hand, I of course want to come across as respectful and accomodating within reason, but on the other, as true to my own self and my own upbringing.  It’s a fine and multi-layered cultural line to toe.

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Take the tour

A peek into my modest abode.  Enjoy!

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

Home from the back

Home from the back

Welcome!

Welcome!

My Kitchen, left of the genkan

My Kitchen, left of the genkan

Living room, view from kitchen

Living room, view from kitchen

Mostly couch, view from sliding doors, a little kitchen

Mostly couch, view from sliding doors, a little kitchen

one tatami room/yoga space!

one tatami room/yoga space!

Other tatami room/guest bedroom

Other tatami room/guest bedroom

Hallway view, from kitchen/living room

Hallway view, from kitchen/living room

Washroom

Washroom

Shower/tub room

Shower/tub room

My Room!

My Room!

My room, other angle - feeling like home

My room, other angle - feeling like home

Does this need a caption? Or a photo for that matter, probs?

Does this need a caption? Or a photo for that matter, probs?

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I now realize that Thursdays and Fridays will become a welcome respite for me.  Schedule-wise, Monday thru Wednesday are my Junior High School days; Thursday and Friday I will rotate through my three elementary schools in the area.  Yesterday was my first day.  For starters, the kids are just absolutely adorable, seated so properly in their miniature little desks,  shoes on the wrong feet (which inevitably happens when you change shoes without someone there to help you), eager little hands reaching up to the ceiling to be called forth to the blackboard.  They all became super comfortable with me, at once, already clinging to me, holding my hand, and calling me Onei-chan (casual form of “Big Sister.”)  I nearly forgot how great it feels to have a little hand in mine!  The atmosphere among the teachers at the Elementary schools is also a little more relaxed than at my Junior High – totally track suit friendly!  Classes are between 45 and 50 minutes, and for the most part, the students do a great job of sitting still and listening for that long.  (I cannot say the same for many adults I know).

Today, we just had sports time, not to be confused with gym period, between 2nd and 3rd period, where the whole school gathers in the gym, does some stretches and runs around for 10 minutes.  The littlest kids in the gym, and the older kids running back and forth down the hallways.  I was “High UP!” girl, waiting at the start/finish line to high-five everyone that ran by on each of their laps.  I’ve also started to conjur up all those hand-clapping games we did as kids…remember??  What are the hand motions for Miss Mary Mack?  I’ve got the Leap Frong song down…what are some other ones I can introduce?  (Note: translating Miss Mary Mack into Japanese is also not as easy as it might sound.)

Also, yesterday, in a comedy of absurdity, I got to participate in the Girl’s Basketball Club.  Let me preface this by saying that I was NEVER a great basketball player, yet running around the gym in dress pants, a regular bra with the straps constantly slipping down my shoulders and….green, plastic slippers, I was hardly the epitome of grace and athleticism I wish to convey to my impressionable pupils.   I was, however, a trooper in every sense of the word.  I jogged around the gym with them for ten minutes, sweating in my work clothes and trying to keep my freaking slippers on the feet.  First things first, a pair of indoor tennis shoes are definitely in order.  (Slippers and indoor shoes, you may ask?  Well, as in all Japanese houses, people must wear separate indoor-only shoes inside most buildings, including schools and government offices, atleast in my small little town.  Students and teachers alike typically leave their indoor shoes at school.)  All in all, I am truly looking forward to getting into a rhythm within the next several weeks and moving ahead from Self-introductions into actual lesson planning.

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