Kanazawa: Visiting a Cultural Treasure

Standing on the ramparts of the partially rebuilt and impressive Kanazawa castle, one can look out over this lovely, prosperous city to the gleaming sea of Japan and the rugged Noto Peninsula. I was there in October and foliage on the mountains to the east was just beginning to turn.

Kanazawa struck me as a delightful place to visit. It’s a small city of roughly 500,000, known for its traditional arts and crafts and preserved historical districts. It is sometimes referred to as a “little Kyoto”, but it more intimate and, perhaps, welcoming and convivial, and not at all as heavily touristed.

That may change soon with advent of the Shinkansen bullet train expansion scheduled for this spring to the new redesigned Kanazawa station, which will make the city an easy 2.5-hour ride from Tokyo.

The city’s highlights for visitors include a central market, spreading out in covered arcades. Kanazawa is famous for the beautiful (and expensive) crabs that were on sale.


Dizzying arrays of mushrooms were displayed and showed up in almost every meal. Fresh wasabi was selling for about $6 per root. Travelers can lunch in one of the market’s restaurants on the quality sushi for which the city is known.


It’s a short cab ride form the market through winding streets filled with enticing shops, bistros, and cafes to Higashi Chaya, one of the city’s three atmospheric entertainment districts where geisha work in specially designated teahouses. There are still traditional geisha in Kanazawa but as is the case in other parts of Japan they are cloistered and mostly inaccessible, although they do perform in Kanazawa at New Year’s for the public in the preserved Shima Teahouse that has been turned into a museum.

The Teahouse has an intimate, antique feel. The rooms are small, the ceilings low, the hallways dark, narrow, and sloping. The stairs are very steep. Hair ornaments and various geisha accessories are on display, as are the instruments on which the geisha perform. The tatamis have a spring to them, a soft under-layer, which I was told was specially constructed for the elaborate dances that the geisha do.

Ochaya, Shima Teahouse

Ochaya, Shima Teahouse

Another short cab ride will bring you up a hill to the high point in the city to the castle and the magnificent Kenroku-en Garden (ranked as one of the three best gardens in Japan). You can wander on winding paths through mossy woods of beautifully sculpted trees. A lush waterfall, heard before seen, empties into one of the garden’s two enchanting carp-filled ponds.

Kanazawa’s beautifully designed 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art is a short stroll down the hill from the garden, as is the Prefectural History Museum, the Prefectural Museum of Art, and the Honda Zohinkan, which exhibits samurai weapons and armor, and paintings and calligraphy.

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa

All in all, Kanazawa is a great city to explore. It has a deep illustrious history bewitchingly entwined with its contemporary, sophisticated feel.

By Kenneth Wapner

Takayama and the Northern Alps

It makes sense that Takayama is sister city to Cusco, the culturally rich and picturesque Peruvian city with an Incan heritage that is set in the Andes. It is also sister cities with Lijiang, a city in Southwestern China known for its traditional architecture and spectacular views of nearby mountains. Takayama has all these qualities: a lovely setting in the foothills of the northern Japanese Alps, an intensely atmospheric historic district that makes you feel as if you are transported back into the old Japan, and a rich cultural heritage.

That heritage is highlighted each spring and fall in festivals the city hosts. The festivals honor the Shinto god who resides at the base of the mountain that rises behind the city. The god is carried from its shrine around the city, approving and blessing the activities of the people. The mood of the festivals is joyous–a happy communion between the people of Takayama and the place they live.

Takayama Festival

Takayama Festival


Takayama Festival

Takayama Festival


The festival highlights elaborate “floats” that are not floats at all but towering carriages that showcase Takayama’s ancient traditions of superb craftsmanship in metal and wood. Men in traditional costume haul the twelve floats, each representing one of Takayama’s traditional neighborhoods, through the narrow streets of the old city.

Takayama Festival

Takayama Festival


Takayama Festival

Takayama Festival


Takayama’s wonderful cuisine is on display in stands and small shops: grilled rice dumpling glazed in soy; miso cooked on magnolia leaf; and, of course, sumptuous Hida beef, which is grilled on skewers or served in luscious lightly cooked slabs as sushi. The city has seven sake breweries that host tastings and sell their wares. It’s delightful to stroll through the remarkable architecture of the old town, absorbing the celebratory atmosphere of the festival, eating small snacks when the urge arises, and sampling sake. The old city has lovely coffee shops where you can to sit and watch people and recharge for more festival action.

Miso cooked on magnolia leaf.

Miso cooked on magnolia leaf.


Grilled Hida beef on skewers.

Grilled Hida beef on skewers.


Beyond the city, the jagged ridgelines of the Northern Japanese Alps rise into the sky, topping ten thousand feet. The Northern Alps are rich in onsen (hot springs), and there are numerous reasonably priced ryokan in the Okuhida-Onsengo onsen area that has their own private bathing pools and offer breakfast and dinner as part of their rate. I stayed in Matsunoi-ryokan, with a lovely outdoor onsen. I dined on a delicious sukiyaki served on my room, followed by a traditional shiatsu massage.

The seven-minute Shinhotaka Rope Way sky tram took me up to a panoramic viewing platform. Far below, a sparkling river tumbled through the valley’s cleft. The steep–sided mountains were resplendent with fall foliage. The mountains stretched on and on—a huge area, stretching into the distance. I could see why this region is known as the “enfolded land,” and why for so long it has retained a remote secluded character, its feeling of authenticity and integrity–a place that time forgot.


By Kenneth Wapner

Travel back in time – Unique Samurai Performance

Japan’s rich history can be experienced most anywhere in the country. With hundreds of ancient castles still standing nationwide, it’s easy to take a trip back in time to a land of feudal lords and samurai. Although a history lesson may conjure up http://www.bzvalue.com/images of stuffy museum visits, Nagoya Castle has found a unique way to entertain and educate its guests with its very own band of Samurai warriors.


©JNTO Photo Library

Nagoya is conveniently located in the Aichi Prefecture just 1 hour 45 minutes from Tokyo or a short 30 minute trip from Kyoto by bullet train. Naogya Castle makes a great day trip or stop-off destination on your way and castle guests can expect an elaborate greeting from the Castle’s own Samurai welcoming committee aptly named the “Omotenashi Bushotai”.




The Omotenashi Bushotai is a troupe of performers that portray notable characters from Japanese history and specifically the history of Nagoya including the castle’s architect, Ieyasu Tokugawa. You can see these handsome actors as they parade through the castle grounds in historically accurate attire circa 500 years ago. During the weekdays, they mostly greet visitors and snap photographs with their avid fan base but during the weekends you can catch them performing thrilling swordfights and epic battle reenactments.




The Omotenashi Bushotai has become quite the tourist attraction in recent years, drawing large crowds for each performance. Visitors who come specifically to see the samurai group, seek out their favorite performers much like tourists searching for their favorite Disney character. Although popular with children and tourists, their most dedicated fan base is middle aged Japanese women who make the good looking samurai actors seem more like members of a boy band.



Don’t worry if you aren’t able to understand the particularly archaic brand of Japanese spoken by the performers – who remain in character regardless of the situation – as the action will provide you with plenty of entertainment. It’s a great opportunity to really immerse yourself in the ancient culture and history of Japan. In addition to the fighting action, audiences can also enjoy impressive weapon displays and dances.



So if you enjoy thrilling swordfights, samurais, or even just looking at charming gentlemen in fantastic costumes, you should consider making a stop at Nagoya Castle and enjoying a trip back through Japanese history. If your trip takes you elsewhere, you can also enjoy similar performances at Sendai Castle in North Eastern Japan or just outside of Kochi station in Japan’s South Western island of Shikoku.

Sendai <Tohoku Region>


Kochi <Shikoku Region>


Hearty Autumn Eating in Japan

Autumn is the season for healthy appetites. A time to indulge in the bounty of the harvest and nourish ourselves for the cold months ahead. Check out five popular seasonal foods that symbolize hearty autumn eating in Japan –

1. Matsutake Mushroom Soup

One of the more notable smells of autumn comes from a hearty mushroom soup called matsutake dobin mushi. The dish is served in a clay teapot called a dobin, enjoyed by pouring out the broth into a small cup and picking out the vegetables to enjoy. The soup consists of a bonito stock, seasonal vegetables, slivers of chicken or shrimp, and the star ingredient, aromatic pine mushrooms called matsutake, which contribute a unique smoky flavor. It can be complimented with a few drops of citrus, such as yuzu or the green-skinned sudachi fruit.

Matsutake Dobin Mushi Warming Autumn Fruit

Matsutake dobin mushi is a soup brimming with mushroomy goodness!

While matsutake dobin mushi is available in restaurants around the country, the price range can differ depending on whether domestic or imported mushrooms are used—matsutake cannot be cultivated and are becoming scarce in Japan, leading to very high domestic prices.

2. Salt-Grilled Sanma

Pacific saury, known as sanma in Japan, is the savory dish of fall; the sleek, silver fish is best enjoyed grilled with salt, called sanma no shioyaki, due to its distinctive oiliness and fatty content. Sanma no shioyaki is served whole, so you should start eating from the crispy skin, adding a squirt of lime juice, daikon radishes, or soy sauce to the flesh as a light garnish, and use chopsticks to pick out portions until only the bones are left.

Sanma shio yaki

Salt-grilled sanma provides the centerpiece to a hearty autumn meal.

Salt-grilled sanma can be enjoyed in traditional pubs with a mild sake, but if you’re looking for an extraordinary street food experience, walking out the east exit of Meguro Station on the first Sunday of September will land you at the smoke-filled Sanma Matsuri, a festival where over 5,000 grilled saurys are given away to visitors to celebrate the hauls brought in from Iwate prefecture.

3. Steamed Shinmai Rice with Gingko Nuts

The first harvests of rice in autumn, called shinmai, or “new rice,” are considered to have a completely different taste than the rice harvested year-round. Japanese will often say that new rice is moister, sweeter, and more aesthetically pleasing, something not to be missed if you’re visiting from late September towards the end of the year.

Mushrooms, sweet potatoes and chestnuts are also popular toppings for those seeking a vegetarian meal, but gingko nuts are a subtle accompaniment to new rice that doesn’t overpower its well-sought flavor.

4. Sweet Potato or Pumpkin Croquettes

To satisfy your fried food craving, you can sink your teeth into a sweet potato croquette. While croquettes are not considered an original Japanese food, the deep-fried delicacy evokes the image of an autumn comfort food for many across the country. Croquettes are often a homemade snack, but they can also be found in the food aisles of department stores such as the Tokyu Foodshow in Shibuya.

Pumpkin Croquette

Reassuringly crunchy with a sweet creamy center – that’s a pumpkin croquette!

Unlike the standard American sweet potatoes, Japanese sweet potatoes have a drier texture, but taste creamy. Pumpkins may not have the “cinnamon and spice” image you may be accustomed to, but the rich, butternut-squash-like flavor does not disappoint when combined with the croquette’s hot, crispy, breading.

5. Candied Chestnuts

Candied chestnuts, or kuri-kinton, are a simple sweet treat in which chestnuts are steamed, mashed, and combined with a delicate confectionary sugar before being twisted into a bun shape using a cloth. Sweet potatoes may be added to heighten the flavor, and the snack is best enjoyed with a cup of hot tea.

Boxes of kuri-kinton are popular gifts for friends and family in the autumn. They are available wherever traditional sweets are sold, but Nakatsugawa city in Gifu is exceptionally famous for the treat, with many specialty shops, some of which have been in operation for more than a century.

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Robatayaki: Fireside Cooking Japanese Style

Sushi, sashimi, ramen and tempura are all well established in the average gourmet’s Japanese food vocabulary, but robatayaki, where small portions of meat, fish or vegetables are slow-grilled to perfection on smoking charcoal, remains sadly under appreciated abroad. This is a shame, because there is arguably no more social or enjoyable way to eat. After all, it’s basically an upmarket version of cooking around the campfire!

Seafood Robatayaki Inakaya Roppongi Tokyo

Cooking seafood on the grill at Inakaya in Roppongi, Tokyo.

The story goes that fishermen in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, wanted to cook some of their catch on the shore as soon as they landed, but had no way of starting a fire. Instead, they put red-hot charcoal in a solid, wooden box at the start of the day, took it with them, and at the end of the day the charcoal would still be hot enough to cook the fish. They’d cook on an oar from the boat, which is why some robatayaki places still dish out food on a long wooden oar as a tribute to those hungry Hokkaido fishermen.

The joy of robatayaki is in the performance. The chefs in charge of the grill keep up a steady stream of banter and activity, and they will undoubtedly get you involved sooner or later. Ordering is simple as fresh produce is laid out in front of your eyes; simply point to an appetizing morsel, and the chef will whisk it away on his oar to the grill. When it’s done, the same oar will be used to pass the food back to you; be it melt-in-the-mouth cubes of medium-rare Kobe beef, lightly seasoned portions of fresh shiitake mushrooms, or barely-seared tuna that was swimming in the Pacific Ocean until that very morning. These are some of the classic robatayaki dishes, but chefs will always be happy to assist with other requests, even if that means using some imaginative sign language!

Robatayaki display

The freshest produce, meats and seafood on display.

So, enjoy the performance, wash the food down with a few beers or delicious, crisp sake from a narrow-necked clay flask, and you will truly be enjoying one of the quintessential Japan food experiences. These are some of the best places to try robatayaki.

Inakaya (Roppongi, Tokyo)

This is the classic ‘robatayaki as performance’ restaurant. The chefs entertain and feed customers simultaneously, using specially produced compressed oak charcoal that gives every dish a divine sweet smokiness. Not cheap at around 15,000 yen ($150) for two with drinks, but worth every penny for the exceptional experience.

Musashi (Shinbashi, Tokyo)

Musashi is Inakaya’s down to earth cousin. You don’t get as much of a performance, but the food is fresh and tasty, and with a fixed price of 290 yen per item you’ll be hard pressed to spend more than 6,000 yen ($60) to feed and water two people handsomely.

Mizukake Chaya (Namba, Osaka)

Mizukake Chaya combines the best of both worlds. The chef’s performance is enhanced by his gregarious Osaka accent, and even the fresh prawn and oysters come in at the fixed price of 300 yen ($3) per dish. If you can get a seat by the counter, you’ll be in for one of the best evenings a Japanese food lover could ask for.

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5 Things We Love About Osaka Dining

Any cities whose people coined the phrase kuidaore, meaning to eat until you become broke, is sure to have good food and a sense of humor.  Osaka has both in spades and more than lives up to its nickname, tenka no daidokoro, or the nation’s kitchen. And although the city loves a joke, it takes this role seriously. With most tourists flocking to Tokyo and Kyoto, the Japanese foods in Osaka cater for hard working, savvy locals.

Thankfully though, Japan’s second biggest city is also seriously friendly, ensuring visiting foodies an accessible, yet oft ignored, eating experience.

Here are 5 top bites to look out for:

Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki

Two of Osaka’s marquee foods!  Takoyaki are glutinous balls of dough, fried and filled with diced octopus, pickled ginger, and onion.  The balls are sprinkled with green laver and bonito shavings, and are usually eaten with a toothpick. Be warned, fresh from the pan they are brutally hot!

Okonomiyaki: Osaka soul food.

Okonomiyaki: Osaka soul food.


Okonomiyaki means grilled as you like, which is appropriate, because often in okonomiyaki restaurants, you’ll be the one doing the grilling.  Sometimes described as ‘Osaka soul food’, okonomiyaki is a kind of pancake batter is mixed with shredded cabbage and a choice of fillings such as pork, seafood, cheese and even kimchi, then griddled on a flattop.  An inch thick and top with brown sauce and mayonnaise, this is not a dish for the faint of heart!


Kushi katsu: Goes great with a beer and good conversation.

Kushi-katsu: Goes great with a beer and good conversation.


Food on a stick! Kushi-katsu is a favorite among Osaka’s office workers; it’s fast, filling and goes down well with cold beer. Developed as a lighter way to enjoy deep-fried pork cutlets, kushi-katsu now encompasses a variety of bite-sized meats and vegetables, battered, deep-fried and then skewered. Head to the ‘old school’ Shin-sekai area to get some of the best Japanese foods on a stick in town.

Kitsune Udon

Kitsune udon: Simple and delicious.

Kitsune udon: Simple and delicious.


Osaka loves its stock. It gets the priority treatment and claims to serve the best kitsune udon in the land. On the surface, the Osakan bit is the kitsune – a piece of deep-fried tofu added to the udon noodles and piping hot broth. However, delightful an addition as it may be, the real show-stopper is that broth – made from the finest ingredients with only light seasoning needed, Osaka challenges you to find anywhere that makes it better.


Osaka may be bold and brash but it does ‘food as art’, too. Enter, hakozushi, or, boxed sushi.

Unlike the sushi that most of us are familiar with, hakozushi’s ingredients are either cooked or cured. Layers of rice, fish or other ingredients are pressed into a square wooden box, removed, and delicately sliced into cubes, giving you something that, quite frankly, looks too good to eat!

Hakozushi made from anago, or salt-water eel.

Hakozushi made from anago, or salt-water eel.


However, hakozushi tastes as amazing as it looks, and because it doesn’t need to be eaten immediately, it is often bought as a gift. That said, it is best eaten within 24 hours, so go on, treat yourself.

Kappo-style Dining

3988523396_62ec13830a_bIt should come as no surprise that kappo-style dining originated from Osaka. In this intimate eating experience, a small counter separates the chef from drooling patrons who wait as a delicious meal is prepared in front of them. The setting lends itself perfectly to Osaka’s spirit of bonhomie, and was the preferred style of dining for the city’s merchant class who felt more at ease in the intimate yet open kappo setup.

Nowadays, kappo establishments range from salt of the earth working class through to high-end operations, usually preparing traditional Japanese foods.  Whatever your budget though, dinner is best served with a dedication to quality and good conversation that can only be found in Osaka.




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5 Unique Soft Serve Flavors of Japan

Japan has a reputation for unconventional and adventurous flavors that few others would think or even dare to attempt. Here are 5 must try soft serve flavors that highlight not only Japan’s unique taste profiles and the regions famous for their interesting flavors.

1. Plum (Ume)

Ume soft serve at Kairakuen ©Kay Allen

Ume soft serve at Kairakuen ©Kay Allen

Let’s start off with the tamest of the bunch. Not to be confused with plums commonly found in the United States, the Japanese variety or ume is more closely related to the apricot and is not suitable to be eaten raw. Ume is most often eaten pickled umeboshi or used to make wine umeshu but it also makes a delicious soft serve with a distinct floral note and sweetness. You can grab a cone and admire the famous plum blossoms (late February – mid March) while strolling through Mito city’s Kairakuen gardens located in the Ibaraki prefecture just 2 hours northeast of Tokyo.

Plum Blossoms in Kairakuen ©Kairakuen Park

Plum Blossoms in Kairakuen ©Kairakuen Park


From Tokyo take the Hitachi or Tokiwa express line to Mito station and then take the Kairakuen bus directly to the garden.

“Mito Plum Blossom Festival,” the harbinger of spring

 2. Wasabi

Wasabi ice cream cone ©MGA73bot2

Wasabi ice cream cone ©MGA73bot2

Most westerners wouldn’t conceive of the spicy green paste most often associated with sushi converted into a sweet cold treat but the resort town of Izu, in Japan’s Shizuoka prefecture, has perfected the confection. Waterfalls such as Jyouren no Taki deliver clean mountain spring water downstream to delicate beds of wasabi plants or wasabiden, making Izu renowned for its quality wasabi. The soft-serve itself has a sweetness similar to vanilla with a distinct spicy aftertaste. One can enjoy this unconventional treat just outside the trail to the famed waterfall which leads tourists through a lush green forest and past the wasabi paddies. A definite must visit.

Jyouren no taki and wasabi paddies

Jyouren no taki and wasabi paddies downstream ©Kay Allen


From Mishima station take the Izu-Hakone railway Sunzu line to Shuzenji station and then take the Tokai bus to Jyouren no Taki bus stop.


3. Miso

Miso soft-serve from Takeya Miso Kaikan ©Evan Liu

Miso soft-serve from Takeya Miso Kaikan ©Evan Liu

Few flavors are as singularly Japanese as miso. The fermented soybean paste has been a staple of the Japanese diet for centuries and is used in countless dishes from simple soup stocks and marinades to sauces for meat and vegetables. Visitors to the Nagano prefecture can take a break from traversing the Japan Alps and head down to the Takeya Miso Kaikan on Lake Suwa. There you can learn about the centuries old art of miso while sampling the many delicious culinary incarnations. Be sure to try the miso soft serve while you are there for a salty sweet flavor experience that you’re sure to remember.

Panorama of Lake Suwa, Nagano ©そらみみ (Soramimi)

Panorama of Lake Suwa, Nagano ©そらみみ (Soramimi)

Take the Chuo Main Line to Kamisuwa station and it is just a short 15 minute walk to the Takeya Miso Kaikan.



4. Bitter Melon (Goya)

Goya soft-serve at Goya Park ©ゴーヤーパーク (Goya Park)

Goya soft-serve at Goya Park ©ゴーヤーパーク (Goya Park)


Okinawans often attribute their notable longevity and health to their diet of native fruits and vegetables, specifically the goya or bitter melon. This vitamin rich fruit is an Okinawan staple and is used in many dishes; the most well-known is the Okinawan stir fry dish known as goya champuru. There is even a whole park (Goya Park) dedicated to goya that is open to the public free of charge. There you can sample this bittersweet soft-serve treat along with many other goya based foods while you walk the grounds.

Sliced goya ©Pixeltoo

Sliced goya ©Pixeltoo

From Naha Airport, go to the bus terminal and take the Nago Tousen bus to the last stop where taxis are available.


http://www.goyapark.com/park/index.php (Japanese site)

5. Squid Ink (Ika Sumi)

Ika sumi soft-serve ©Katherine Donaldson

Ika sumi soft-serve ©Katherine Donaldson

The area of Hakodate in Japan’s northern most prefecture of Hokkaido is renowned for its seafood. The morning market in Hakodate is a great place to sample and purchase the freshest seafood Hakodate has to offer. So fresh in fact that a favorite tourist pastime is squid fishing in the market’s fish tanks, where a successful catch can be instantly prepared as sashimi. Hokkaido Farm, a popular ice cream parlor at the far end of the market, has found a way to marry Hakodate’s famous seafood with Hokkaido’s high quality dairy products with their squid ink soft serve. The shop boasts a delicious soft serve that is free of additives and uses only the freshest cream. Visitors who can look past the gray color are in for a sweet surprise.



Hakodate Morning Market is located just across the street from Hakodate station.


FOOD: 6 Tips to Eat Like a Local in Japan

From amazing street food, to exquisite dining, and opportunities to learn cooking secrets from the masters, Japan offers you food experiences like nowhere else in the world. Check out these helpful tips for eating like a local in Japan:

1. Train Station Boxed Lunches

Aso-san Eki-ben

Ekiben are boxed lunches sold at train stations and on trains throughout Japan. Stations that offer ekiben pride themselves on unique presentations of local flavors and specialties, ready to be enjoyed from the comfort of your train seat.



2. Department Store Food Halls

Department Store Food Hall Japan

Meals in Japan don’t always have to break the bank. Visit a department store basement level at closing time when shop owners are eager to sell off the days remaining product and get great discounts on freshly prepared meals.



3. Izakaya: Japanese Pubs


For a place to eat, drink and hang out with friends, try a Japanese pub. The low prices and shareable dishes are great for groups and the extensive menu options make it easy to find something for even the pickiest eaters. Also, be sure to remember that there is no tipping!



4. Take A Cooking Class

Japanese Cooking Class

Want to really immerse yourself in Japanese cuisine? You can learn how to make dishes such as sushi and soba from the chefs themselves. Don’t forget the best part – you get to eat your work when you’re finished.



5. Stand Up Noodle Shops


Usually featuring soba or udon noodles, stand up noodle shops are a common fixture in train stations and shopping thoroughfares in Japanese cities. Warm up with a hot bowl in the winter or cold noodles in the summer. Either way, surrounded by noodle slurping locals, this is a can’t-miss cheap and quick meal.



6. Conveyer Belt Sushi Shops

Conveyor belt sushi

Conveyer belt sushi bars allow you to experience sushi in Japan at a price (and pace) closer to fast food. Offering fresh seafood ubiquitous in Japan, with plates starting at 100 Yen (about $0.80), how can you not afford to get filled up on sushi?



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