Lucky Maruda or Daruma

A lucky Maruda on a Kintetsu train

Daruma or Maruda are a classic symbol of luck and they are simply Japanese. But have you ever wondered how they came to be or even what they are?

These delightful charms are initially designed on Bodhidhama or the founder of Zen Buddhism, the Japanese sect of Buddhism. With regards to what the Maruda looks like, each artist can do as much or as little as they like.

The benefits of this are simple: if you can think of a character there is a Maruda for it. The example above is distinctly cat shaped, a purrfect example.

How do they work?

Maruda are usually bought without pupils and you need to paint them on yourself. You first paint one pupil while wishing for something and once it comes true, you paint the other.

This does mean that there are many accross Japan with only one eye as the wishes never came true.

Nevertheless the less, a lucky charm can certainly never hurt!

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

初詣: First shrine visit of the new year

How2: Hatsumode in Nabari

While living in Japan, it is inevitable that you will pick up some good and some bad habits- it’s just how it goes. One habit that I adore, and will miss, is Hatsumoude or visiting a shrine at the beginning of January.

A Shrine worker stoking the fire

Hatsumoude is held at most if not all shrines across Japan and each shrine offers a different benefit such as business success, transportation safety, academia etc.

The main shrine in Nabari city is Urufu Shrine, located in the Hirao district of Nabari. The main benefit of performing Hatsumode at this shrine is transportation safety (交通安全) and charms (お守り) can be bought (and were bought) for 500 JPY to help ensure your safety.

Upon arrival, I was greeted with a massive bonfire, which had the delightful job of keeping me warm while I waited for midnight to welcome in the new year. A tent was set up which offered sake, sweet sake and dried fish (all of which were delicious!).

Everyone was enjoying the fine heat and looking at our phones to see when the clock struck midnight. Suddenly many people seemed to quietly erupt with the phrase “あけおめ” or an informal happy new year. There was quite a queue to pray and thank the kami for the previous year and for help with the coming. Naturally, I took lots of photos, but they were terrible- so I had to visit another shrine.

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積田神社 or Sekita Shrine

Sekita Shrine is an ancient shrine with a 1250 year-old history and it is dedicated to the Shinto Kami Kashimaookami (鹿島大神). It is said that in ancient times before the opening of the heavens and the earth, Kashimaookami was appointed by Tenso Tenjin and descended from the heavens to earth (or from Takamagahara).

Kashimaookami is particularly known for their protection of the Tohoku region (northern man-land Japan) and has been worshipped as a god of military arts and equal to the god of thunder (war). More modern depictions include the phrase “鹿島立ち” meaning to set off on a journey and as a god who will protect you on your journey- or a perfect kami to ask for protection when travelling back to the UK.

A bonfire is still burning 2 days later

When entering a shrine, you are expected to purify yourself with hand washing (post to come) and when coming up to the shrine, make an offering of saisen (賽銭) or donations into the donation box or offertory box (賽銭箱- the kanji is a bit literal). Luck donation amounts are usually considered to be 5, 50 , or 500 JPY(the ‘best’ donation is 9 5 JPY coins- a good fate from beginning to end). But why 5 yen coins?

5 yen in Japanese is pronounced go-en (五円) and guess what this is the same as? If you guessed Pulmonary aspiration- 誤嚥 (swallowing the wrong way) go try to brilliant medical Japanese skills but I meant ご縁 or luck/ fortune.

After praying or asking a kami for a wish, it is traditional to get an Omikuji or fortune for the year ahead. Fortunes cost 100 JPY and it is either a ‘lucky dip’ or shaking a wooden contained until a wooden rod emerges with a number which corresponds to a fortune.

If your fortune is bad, you have the option of keeping it- it is an option- or tying it to a rope at a shrine to keep the bad fortune enshrined there instead.

Omikuji will give you a complete fortune and advise on matters from academic success, financial success, matters of the heart, travel, health etc- in much more detail than a horoscope (AN I did write “horror scope” but that would be a bit morbid now wouldn’t it).

Finally, I would like to wish you all a very happy new year from Nabari and Japan or in Japanese: 新年あけましておめでとうございます.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring in 2020!

Nabari City
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2019: Japanese news highlights

There are many articles and posts that look at the year just (or almost) gone and this article is no different. 2019 has been an extremely busy year for Japan and I have picked out the 12 main news stories of this year- but don’t worry it’ll be kept short.

There are many more important news stories that did occur across Japan, but the stories I have chosen are ones that seemed to make Japan stop and think- unfortunately hit-and-runs, executions and other “depressing” events are mostly ignored.

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  • January 2nd

    Was the last chance to visit the imperial palace in the Heisei era.

  • February 7th

    1324 Leo Palace Apartment buildings are heavily criticized for failing to meet minimum construction standards nationwide

  • March 21st

    Ichiro resigns from major league baseball. His career lasted for more than 28 years. He had 4367 hits in his career.

  • April 1st

    The forthcoming Imperial name “令和” was announced on live TV. The name is the first from a Japanese source

  • May 1st

    The crowning of a new emperor, following the abdication of the previous emperor. Reiwa begins.

  • June 30th

    President Trump crosses the North Korean border with the Supreme leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un

  • July 17th

    An arsonist attacked the Kyoto animation studio. 36 were killed in this attack

  • August 28th

    Toyota and Susuki announce a collaboration to speed up the development of autonomous technology

  • September 20th

    The rugby world cup starts in Japan. It ended in August with South Africa winning the title

  • October 12

    Typhoon 19 hits Japan. It was the worst typhoon in recent Japanese history. The death toll stands at 74, with millions of dollars of damaged caused

  • November 10th

    The imperial parade celebrating the new emperor takes place in Tokyo. Thousands lined the streets in the hopes of seeing the new emperor and empress.

  • December 4th

    Japanese doctor Tetsu Nakamura was killed in Afghanistan. His body was returned to his family on the 9th of December and the funeral took place on the 11th.

It has been quite a year for Japan and other highlights include the end of the pager in Japan, the end of 7 pay, and the execution of Wei Wei, a Chinese national on the 27th of December.

But there are dates to look forward to in 2020 including:

  • Oshogatsu, new Years celebration and the shrine visit on the 1st of January
  • 31st of January is the proposed Brexit day
  • 23rd of February the J-league starts
  • 26th of Match is the start of the Olympic torch relay
  • 24th of July is the start of the Tokyo Olympics

What are you looking forward to in 2020, besides perfect vision?

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Organ donation in Japan

Organ donation is a complicated topic in Japan. Here’s a quick guide.

A needed practice but the Japanese usually don’t follow it

One thing I have found during my research on all things Japanese is the need for tradition. Traditions almost govern modern Japanese society and can be observed at every level. However, tradition costs lives.

What I specifically mean by that is traditional practices takes precedence over life in some circumstances. For example, it is culturally expected that a body is to be cremated whole without anything missing. The problem with this is simple, that body is to be disposed via cremation- it is to be burnt and all organic material with it. Why should I be concerned with this- you may wonder. Simple- statistically there are only 0.7 transplants per million or 64 took place in 2016 (for all organs) and in 2019 there have been 102 donors and 372 recipients ( https://www.jotnw.or.jp/ ).

The bright side, the numbers have increased by 38 over a two year period. Alas, the number of people waiting for an organ is 13,948 as of Halloween 2019. This looks especially terrible when you consider that over 1,000,000 Japanese people due annually and many bodies are ‘put on ice’ until there is room at crematoria. I do realize that not all bodies are suitable for transplants- but which ones are?

Under Japanese law, anatomical gifts (organ donations) can be given under 2 conditions: brain death and cardiac death. But the rules governing organ transplantation are possible the strictest in the world. Organ transplantation may only be considered under the following circumstances:

  • Organ donation or 臓器提供 is based upon explicit permission where people have to opt in. The individual has stated (in writing) that they wish for their organs to be donated.
  • The family is in agreement
  • The only causes of death accepted are brain or cardiac death (cases involve suicide to try and help another will NOT be accepted)

In fact, donations from brain-dead donors (脳死)still makes headline news especially donors under 18. In February, the parents of a boy under 6 (his exact age was not given) made the difficult decision to donate the organs of their son- who was always looking to help others. Recipients were almost immediately chosen- highlighting the need further.

There are still problems with this system and again it is cultural. Many doctors still do NOT recgonise brain death as a cause for human death in Japan and if the cause of death is declared as anything else, organ donation is not possible.

Brain death under Japanese law is cited as the following:

Brain death will only be declared if organic injury is observed in the brain with attributable cause and if the following criteria are met:

Deep coma

Dilated and fixed pupils

Loss of brain stem reflex

Flat brain waves

Loss of spontaneous respiration

Two or more doctors with requisite expertise and experience confirm no changes after a second test conducted six or more hours later.

Japanese organ transplantation network

There are ongoing campaigns to either change the law in Japan to allow donations from a wider pool of donors and campaigns to raise awareness. The green ribbon campaign works with one core principle:

Yes is okay. No is okay. It is your intention [choice].

Green ribbon campaign

This campaign shows the difference organ donation has on many lives and has a section on the website to share the stories of recipients so you can see what a difference it has made.

Families that have not been able to receive a new organ have only a few options.

Firstly, do nothing. For patients who need a major organ (heart, liver, lungs etc) they can choose to do nothing. This would result in their death.

Secondly, secondary care options e.g. dialysis for kidney issues. The problem with this option is the expense. Dialysis costs 6 Million yen a year- for the rest of their lives- whereas transplantation costs 6 Million yen and only requires blood tests and doctors appointments instead. This is a cheaper option which takes us to option 3.

Travelling abroad in hopes of paying for a transplant. This method is expensive as in remortgage your house expensive. The problem is that no country has a stockpile of spare organs- but these organs need to be sources from somewhere. This may be the black market or taking organs from others in that country that also need them.

This is an extremely complicated issue in Japan where tradition and human life fight against each other. Japanese law was changed in 2010 and even though may younger Japanese are filling out organ donation forms and, as an outsider, I feel more still needs to be done in order to help more people survive.

What do you think about organ donation in Japan?

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Disposition in Japan

Definition: disposal of human remains in Japan

Time for another jolly post but this time about disposition. But why talk about such a topic during awareness month? Simply put, it is a problem that no-one talks about.

Global disposition options

The reason to address this first, it to highlight the differences between Japan and the rest of the world.

When considering disposition, 2 options usually come to mind: burial or cremation.

Burial

There are 2 main types of burial: natural burial and traditional burial. Natural burial is the type of burial that has been practiced for generations within the Jewish and Islamic communities and is slowly become more accepted in the western World- even though it has only been about 100 years since it was commonly practiced in the West.

A natural burial is simply burying a body, without any sort of preservation (embalming) in a grave to allow it to decompose and return to nature. In Islamic tradition, a body is washed, shrouded and buried within 24 hours.

Traditional burial (usually but not always) involves emblaming the body to help preserve it, placed into either a coffin or casket (yes there is a difference) and placed into a traditional cemetery with a burial vault (mostly in the US) or into the soil.

Side note: embalming fluid is highly carcinogenic and this fluid enters the water table…how nice.

Cremation

The other main option is cremation. Cremation is the process in which all organic material (the body) and only non-organic calcium oxide and phosphorous pent-oxide remain. This process takes approximately 1-2 hours and in most countries, the bone fragments are, by law, ground up into the ash that we all know.

While there are different cremation services on offer, the simplist is known as direct cremation and just involves an organisation picking up the body, cremating it and returning the ashes.

The cost does differ on country but you are looking at approximately 1000 USD, 500 GBP plus, or 50,000 JPY (in Yokohama).

Other global options
  • Alkaline hydrolysis: dissolving the body in an alkaline solution. Any organic material is not released into the air and breathed in by others, but instead go into the water system.
  • Burial at sea: weighing down the body and allowing it to decompose in the ocean.
  • Sky burial: breaking up the body and allowing it to be scavenged by animals- another way to “give back to nature”
  • Human composting: allowing the body to be turned into compost and being reused
  • Immurement: being placed into a mausoleum or tomb
  • Mummification: a body is prepared and preserved to make it last a long time
  • Plasternisation: think of the body works exhibit. It replaces body fats and fluid with plastic and it preserves the body.
  • Donation: to either help future doctors (medical school use), help scientific research (including body farms and biomedical research, and military use (weapons testing – including biological)
  • Cryonics: AKA cryogenics the art of freezing the body for possible future revival
  • cannibalism*

*There are cultures that do practice cannibalism- sometimes for positives reasons (to keep them within the community) or negative reasons (because they could).

Disposition in Japan

Even though, legally, there are 2 options that are considered, in practice there is only 1: cremation.

While the UK’s cremation rate is about 70%, France’s at 20%, the cremation rate in Japan is above 99.5%- which is a fantastic number. Burrial is legal but is forbidden in most prefectures or as per local by-laws. Exceptions can be made for religious reasons but new graveyards are forbidden from burying bodies.

Problems with cremation in Japan

Japan has a severe aging population and over 1,000,000 people die each year in Japan. The problem is that even at the largest crematorium, there is still a “waiting list” for corpses.

There are more bodies than crematoria (the plural of crematorium) available and during the traditional Japanese funeral, the family waits in the “lobby” (actually is the funeral hall) while the body is being cremated. Then then pick out the bone fragments from the warm remains and place it in an urn.

Fun fact: this is the only time in Japan when it is acceptable for more than 1 chopstick to move an item at once. 2 people may need to work together to move a large bone fragment into the urn. So, if you do this in public, it may remind someone of this situation and cause flashbacks, so just don’t.

Alternatively, there is a growing trend: 直送 lit. direct delivery or direct cremation- as this is a much cheaper option. It is also the option for those that are from low income backgrounds, live or die alone or the homeless (their funerals are organised by a civil servant).

Price

A traditional Japanese funeral service, not including cremation or the burial plot, ranges from 500,000 JPY to 2,000,000. Cremation usually ranges from 70,000 to 170,000 JPY and if a grave is wanted, prices usually range from 350,000 to 2,000,000 JPY. The final gaijin price range for everything is 920,000 JPY to 4,170,00 JPY (plus tax). This is a massive price: 8,400 USD to 38,000 JPY- considering the average price for a ‘massive’ funeral in Japan in $5,000- Japan is extraordinarily more expensive.

While it is cheaper if you do not require a plot or take the cremation price from Yokohama (12,000 JPY for residents and 50,000 for non-residents), or choose a small family orientated wake, you are sill looking at 3000+ USD.

Please note, I have NOT talked about the annual fees for grave maintenance, the headstone and other fees e.g. food and drink at funerals etc.

Other options for cremains (cremated remains)

  • Internment in a home shrine (extremely traditional)
  • Internment in a sky scraper grave
  • Interment in another mass memorial
  • Interment is a communal grave (extremely cheap option)
  • Interment in a company grave
  • spread on the winds (not really practiced in Japan)
  • Shot into space (a small part of you only)
  • up-cycled into jewelry, pictures etc

The Japanese problem

With the amount of dead bodies, and with the limited space available, there is no-where for the dead to go. The tradition of the family plot is unfeasible for those who live in major cities- even those within the industry, do not wish for a traditional Japanese funeral as it would put “too much pressure on their families”.

Cremation is the norm within Japan and will continue to be so- it was the way the Buddha was given back to nature after all. It is just strange that a funeral is so much more expensive than a wedding.

The one positive to Japanese death culture is simple: there is active death awareness. Unlike in the West, death is a taboo topic but with Japan’s death culture and festival (お盆- Obon which takes place in August) is is an active part of life.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Advanced directives in Japan

Not an easy topic but a necessary one.

Please look at this beautiful picture, its nice and pretty and if you are squeamish please try to read this article- its important.

Anything that is in relation to end of life care or dying is NOT popular at all. To be perfectly honest, I do not expect this article to be read but this is (I hope) the start of a conversation, the start of an understanding that will be covered.

Please note, I have not studied Japanese law extensively and as this concerns Japanese law please do consult a lawyer or solicitor to ensure that the information you need is legal and correct. Additionally, at the end of this article and on the further information page of this blog is a like to Advanced directives and the actual form in English and Japanese from the university of Michigan. Let us begin.

What is an advanced directive?

Firstly you will die, one day. That is at the core of an advanced directive- one’s mortality but more importantly one’s choice. You have a choice to make to either have an input into your last days and your funeral or to see what life throws your way.

An advanced directive or living will is a written document that states your wishes regarding end-of-life care (from live extension to removal of support), pain management, organ donation, and postmortem options. The link to the document I have provided includes mental health options, life ending decisions, end of life plans and giving someone the durable power of Attorney of health care.

Why choose an advanced directive?

An example for this is extension of life or allowing one to die in cases of incurable diseases such as cancer, ALS, dementia etc. At this stage, do you want your life to continue regardless of the chance (or lack therefore of) of recovery or allow yourself to die.

What are your personal beliefs? Under what circumstances (or none perhaps) do you believe life is not worth living. What about your religious beliefs? What are your options regarding end of life care or postmortem options?

What about a DNR or DNACPR?

You may be wish to have a DNACPR or commonly called a DNR- do not resuscitate. To add a personal note to this, my mother had a DNR- it was a decision I did not agree with but I accepted her decision. When her time came, the wishes were respected. Additionally, my mother had planned her entire funeral and it progressed exactly as she wanted. Even if no-one were to be at her funeral, it would have progressed exactly the same.

What this comes down to is personal choice. In Japan 58% of Japanese nursing homes have advanced directives (but that is not to say they are filled out) and this allows a person a choice.

The choice is simple: do you want a say in what happens to you if you cannot?

The final note on this article will be a piece of advice from my company. If you die in Japan, all expenses will be your (or your families) problem not the companies. The words used were more of the idea that you don’t have a choice nor a say- live with it. But what happens if you want a say in it? Or want/need a choice.

This is a needed topic to cover in the month of awareness and while leading a health life is one of my core principles, dealing with difficult topics will help either mentally, spiritually, or emotionally. This topic cannot be ignored death is the end of the journey of life.

Thank you for reading and enjoy exploring.

Advanced directive resource https://medicine.umich.edu/sites/default/files/content/downloads/99-10048_AdvanceDirectives_Booklet%28Japanese%29.pdf – advanced directive document in English and Japanese

Final note.

If you are part of the LGBTQ* community an advanced directive allows you to, for example, keep your gender identity after death. There have been cases where trans women have been changed to show them as males rather than females.

Additionally, some countries do not recognize same-sex partnerships and thus, legally, have to follow the directive of the next of kin rather than their partner. An advanced directive and giving someone the durable power of attorney for health care allows their partners to be involved in the entire process and even if your partner does recover, it is a safety net that is necessary even in LGBTQ countries (the US, the UK etc). Please consider an advanced directive no matter where you live!

Opinion: Christmas, the prolific

As I have previously discussed, Japan’s interest in Christmas seems to have exploded since my time as a foreign exchange student just 5 years ago. It could be due to increased experience or perhaps a more enlightened world view, but Christmas is everywhere.

In know in the UK, Christmas has exploded onto the Zeitgeist with people already putting up decorations, listening to music etc. But there is one thing that most agree on: the Christmas dinner: the turkey (or other option), the veg, the stuffing, the company, the merriment and everything that I won’t be experiencing this year (perhaps also why I’m noticing Christmas things a lot more).

To the Japanese (most), Christmas doesn’t evoke the same feelings and even though it is regarded as a family day or an alternative Valentines day, companies are still looking to profit from this. Case and point Mos burger. Mos Burger is not alone in its’ advertising- KFC, convenience stores, every single supermarket etc are advertising their selections for Christmas day.

Amazingly, there are separate catalogs for the New Year’s meal and Christmas meal which considering these days are only a week apart is pretty amazing.

There is a slight downside to the special Christmas meals: the price. A 8 piece chicken meal with commemorative plate is a mere 4100 JPY (4000 JPY if ordered before December. The Mos Burger meal is cheaper but it only includes chicken and no extras but it is still 1375 JPY for the small (i.e. 1 person meal).

Will I be ordering anything at all this festive season? No. I will stick with my diet and save money (sending gifts back to the UK is expensive enough).

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Opinion: Japanese opening hours- the warning

A lovely pic from my pre gym workout….

This is going to be a strange post, but how would you cope if seemingly the entire country operates on a 9-5 or similar time. What if your an early bird, or a tourist?

Firstly, this is something I have noticed across Japan, both in cities and in the country side- whether small green grocers or a national monument; Japan operates on Japan time. When looking at places to visit, you need to look at the closing time extremely carefully as there, as a rule, is a last admittance time and a closing time.

While this makes sense in a practical way- to allow workers to have a life outside of work (let’s leave salary men out of this one), having an entire city operate on this kind of time seems counter-intuitive. Osaka, for example, closes for lack of a better word at either 1700 for attractions or 2200 for most day operating restaurants. While there are certainly things to do an see after this, options are extremely limited.

Another example would be Axtos, the gym. Doors only open (regardless of when it closes) at 1000 and as an early bird this annoys me. Ideally, I would go much earlier at 0715 and complete my workout and be ready to start my day around 0930. What you must do, therefore, is to either take extremely long bike riders in the mornings (which I do), run (I need new shoes first), or start later. The problem with option 3, and taking into account the closing times of other shops in Nabari (smaller shops 1700), you’re suddenly left with less time and a lot of things to do.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Japanese parents are always rushing about and stressing about every little thing?

What does this mean for visitors to an area or tourists? Simply put PPPPPPP or proper planning and preparation prevents poor performance (please insert an expletive beginning with p). If you are planning a holiday, a long break or just a trip to the next city, check your locations either on google maps, or that companies websites- even I have fallen into the trap of “it’ll be open” and occasionally it isn’t.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring

Review: the mystery bag

A luck dip bag

Japan has a strange relationship with convience stores. Many are closing due to lack of business, may are changing their opening hours to allow the store to stay open and others are just opening: case and point: Family mart in Matsuharamachi, Nabari (松原町).

This store is, to be honest, located in a rather rural area with no footpath to the store, and it’s surrounded by small business and farmlands. In other words, not a viable business location (to my mind at least). But with its opening today (22/11/19) there were several higher-ups there to advertise the T card ( a point card or a credit card that collects points as well).

The problem with this is that everyone in Japan knows what the T card is and more importantly knows what services family mark offers. Ignoring this and enjoying the ‘new’ store, they offer something on opening day that is a little treat- the lucky bag.

These bags are extremely common in Japan especially around anything seasonal (New Year’s, Golden week, Obon etc) and whenever a store opens. The sign stated that over 1000 JPY worth are products were in the bag for just 600 JPY and being the month of trying new things, I had to buy on. One of the big wigs knew English as well he told me: “Japanese luck lag. Very, very discount”. It was extremely nice of him to try- so thank you. Moving on to the product.

My mystery selection came in a bag marked lucky bag or 福袋 and inside was a rather nice selection.

The mystery selection

The first thing to note is that all of the products are family mart branded products- which are also the cheapest treats they offer (but not the healthiest though) but that is not to say they are the worst- some of my selection was a welcome Friday treat.

Firstly, the 2 cakes (the Baumkuchen and the waffeln didn’t last- they were consumed within 5 minutes of this picture (ignoring my diet for the moment). The ingredient for which is everything you would expect in a mass-produced product.

The salt popcorn is standard popcorn- nothing to write home about and tastes exactly how you would expect; moving on. The chocolate peanut bites were nice but forgettable- they’re sweet, crunchy, nutty and at least they’re cheap.

The nicest products from this selection were the crystallized pineapple and the green tea. These are items are something I would actually buy because they are a small treat and relatively healthy. However, these products together are about 300 JPY.

You may be wondering about the instant ramen: I an not going to consume it because a: there are a tonne of ingredients, b: include shell fish (I cannot stand the taste) and c: I have some self-respect (some).

Was it worth it? Price wise yes I can see why someone would buy this. Would I recommend this: jein. If you have not bought a similar bag in the past it is worth the experience. If you have, don’t other wasting your money- just buy what you want.

Thank you for reading and happy exploring.

Opinion: Christmas is coming

Japan has taken to the profit making market of Christmas

Within many supermarkets throughout Japan, the Christmas section is starting to bloom into a eye-sore of a seasonal isle. Aeon is no different in that respect.

Aeon offer many different types of products, some of which just look like the 七五三 products but re-branded for Christmas, most of which seem to be targeted to children and the stocking is no different.

Stockings, traditionally be hung by the fire place, are a place to put small treats to enjoy on Christmas day have in this case been pre-filled with 5 treats and have a slightly different design.

In regards to Christmas products, 1080 JPY is not a bad price but it is still expensive for what you get. It’s a good product for children or as a decoration piece but that’s about it.

There will be more Christmas related products to come, but for now, thank you for reading and happy exploring.